The Weakest Link? Not UF’s O-Line

You can’t call the Florida offensive line an unqualified success just quite yet, but it is safe to say that given the rate of progress they have shown in the first three games they are on track for an outstanding season. This was supposed to be the team’s weakest link but with the way they are improving every game, weak hardly seems a proper description.

When the season began there was good reason there were such low expectations for the offensive line. When you lose four senior starters including a center that started 50 straight games from an offensive line that struggled the entire 2005 season, it’s pretty hard to get your hopes too high. Typically, you don’t win games or do very well with an untested offensive line against the kind of defenses you see in the Southeastern Conference. When your schedule includes Tennessee, Alabama, LSU, Auburn and Georgia, all of whom had defenses ranked in the top 20 in total defense in 2005, you better have a dependable offensive line if you expect your quarterback to make it all the way through the season without surgery.

Back in August, when practice began, the offensive line shaped up with junior Phil Trautwein (1 career start at tight end) at left tackle, sophomore Jim Tartt (three career starts) at left guard, senior Steve Rissler (11 career starts at guard) at center, redshirt freshman Ronnie Wilson at right guard and junior Drew Miller (four career starts at guard) at right tackle. Coach Urban Meyer was just getting comfortable with that line when Wilson broke his ankle in practice, forcing a reshuffling of the line. Miller moved back to right guard and by the time game one arrived, fourth-year junior Carlton Medder seemed a somewhat shaky choice to start at right tackle. Prior to game one with Southern Miss, all of Medder’s experience was in mop-up roles or on the extra point and field goal teams.

There was also the issue of depth. With Wilson out, the third man in the rotation would have to be a true freshman, either Maurice Hurt or Marcus Gilbert. At tackle, the third man in the rotation would have to be untested third year sophomore Jason Watkins. This was a situation that left Meyer very concerned going into game one against a Southern Miss team that plays John Thompson-Joe Lee Dunn-style defense, unconventional and difficult to read.

“When Ronnie went down they [offensive line] were well ahead of the schedule,” said Coach Urban Meyer at Monday’s media day gathering. “We were very concerned. That was my biggest concern going into game one.”

The first game results weren’t all that bad. New guys going against a veteran defensive line and a most unpredictable scheme that sometimes had ten defenders standing within two yards of the line of scrimmage still produced 34 points. Against UCF in game two, the Gators produced 42 points, 637 total yards and 204 rushing yards.

You expect improvement from game one to game two when the opponents are from Conference USA. The real measure for where the line is came last Saturday in Knoxville when the Gators faced Tennessee in Neyland Stadium before a crowd of 106,618.

What Florida’s line did was nothing short of amazing. Florida had only two false start penalties in that loud, hostile environment and one of those should have been encroachment by the Tennessee defense. The Gators rushed for 121 yards against a Tennessee defense that last year ranked second nationally against the run. Quarterback Chris Leak was sacked three times but one of those was on a blitz when the Vols simply had more pass rushers than the Gators had pass protectors and a second was the direct result of a busted assignment in the backfield.

Tailback DeShawn Wynn had perhaps his best day ever as a Gator when he powered his way to 104 yards, almost all of them between the tackles. In the waning moments of the game when the Gators needed a first down to kill the clock, Wynn and the line did their part to preserve the victory, notching four yards on first down and six on second, both times going against a stacked Tennessee defensive line that knew exactly what was coming.

When it came to pass protection, Leak had all day to throw on his three touchdown passes, a 21-yarder to Jemalle Cornelius and scoring connections of four and 21 yards to Dallas Baker. The 21-yarder to Baker was the game-winner. Leak finished the game with 15 completions in 25 attempts for 199 yards.

Co-offensive players of the game for the Gators against Tennessee were Rissler and Trautwein. Medder graded champion, marking the third straight game he’s done that.

Meyer is particularly proud of Medder’s development. The big junior from Clermont weighed 349 when Meyer arrived a little less than two years ago and he was considered lazy both on the practice field and in the classroom. All that has changed. He’s a hard worker in the classroom and now a strong, fit 309-pounder.

“If you thought two years ago I would have been standing here and said Carlton Medder just graded out as champion third time in a row in Knoxville without having a flinch penalty, I would have thought DeShawn Wynn would be a captain before that happened,” said Meyer Monday.

Of course, Wynn was one of the game captains against the Vols, another success story for the Meyer way of doing things.

According to Meyer, Medder’s development has a lot to do with the senior leadership of Rissler. Rissler, whom Meyer has said is a better football player than he ever anticipated, has proven to be the smart, tough leader that an offensive line needs.

“I think Steve Rissler is responsible for Carlton Medder,” said Meyer.

Through three games, the Gators are averaging 156 yards per game on the ground and 293.3 per game through the air, an average of 449.33 yards per game of offense. The Gators are averaging 4.4 yards per rushing attempt, up a half yard per carry from last year, and they’ve given up only five sacks in three games. That senior-dominated offensive line gave up 35 sacks last year, an average of nearly three per game.

Meyer knows the line still has a long way to go, but he’s confident that this is a group that can get the job done. He’ll have the luxury of Wilson’s return perhaps in another week and that will give him the option of sliding Miller out to tackle to strengthen that rotation.

He’s not going to call them a great unit quite yet, but he sees the potential particularly with Rissler as the anchor in the middle of the line, providing the toughess you need out of a center and the intelligence to get the line in the right blocking scheme every time the ball is snapped. .

“I see it here …. I see it with Rissler,” he said, adding that his linemen “are ahead of schedule.”

Next up for the Gator offensive line is a Kentucky defense that is vastly improved in its two games since a disastrous opener against Louisville. The Wildcats are giving up only 355 yards per game, improving their overall ranking to sixth in the SEC.

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Franz Beard
Back in January of 1969, the late, great Jack Hairston, then the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, called me on the phone one night and asked me if I wanted to work for him. I said yes. The entire interview took 30 seconds. It's my experience that whenever the interview lasts 30 seconds or less, I get the job. In the 48 years that I've been writing and getting paid for it, I've covered Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA basketball championships, BCS championship games, heavyweight title fights and what seems like thousands of college football, baseball and basketball games. I'm a columnist and special assignments editor for Gator Country once again, writing about the only team that ever mattered to me, the Florida Gators.