Too Early to Push the OL Panic Button

If we go back to the 1996 season, that line has become the standard that all offensive lines must live up to at the University of Florida. Those guys got to protect the Heisman Trophy winning quarterback, Danny Wuerffel, and did their part to lead the Gators to the national championship (52-20 win over Florida State in the Sugar Bowl).

But check the record. When it comes to offensive lines, that one resembled a M*A*S*H unit. Finding enough healthy bodies to get through games was a huge challenge for Jimmy Ray Stephens, who did a great job of shuffling the Florida deck. It could have been a real nightmare but somehow the Gators found a way even with second stringers filling in the gaps when first stringers went down.

Below is a list of offensive linemen who started the first game in 1996 (not including bowl game):

* LT: #79 Mo Collins (sophomore)

* LG: #51 Ryan Kalich (freshman)

* C: #71 Jeff Mitchell (senior)

* RG: #75 Donnie Young (senior)

* RT: #69 Zach Piller (sophomore)

That’s how it looked on opening day but that lineup held up for only three games. Mo Collins missed six games in the middle of the season. Piller moved over to left tackle and Young moved to right tackle. Freshman Corey Yarbrough stepped in at right guard.

In game eight against Georgia, All-American center Jeff Mitchell broke his leg and junior Wylie Ritch took over. Donnie Young was banged up the entire season. He basically finished the season on one healthy leg.

This is a list of the offensive linemen that actually started a game for the Gators in 1996:

1. Mo Collins (#79, sophomore) played four games, starting one game at right tackle and three games at left tackle.

2. Cooper Carlisle (#70, freshman) started six games at left tackle.

3. Freshman Ryan Kalich (#51, freshman) started all 12 games at left guard.

4. Jeff Mitchell (#71, senior) started all eight games until he broke his leg against Georgia.

5. Wylie Ritch (#59, junior) took over for Mitchell and got four starts at center.

6. Corey Yarbrough (#62, freshman) started five games at right guard.

7. Donnie Young (#75, senior) started all 12 games, six at right guard and six at right tackle.

8. Zach Piller (#69, sophomore) started seven games, six at right tackle and one at left tackle.

If 1996, the line that all Florida lines are measured against, found a way to make it all work with so many injuries that forced the lineup to be shuffled nearly every week, then there is no good reason to panic this early in the preseason in 2006. Yes, Ronnie Wilson is out at least two to three weeks into the season and Maurice Hurt is out for two weeks of preseason practice, but that 1996 team proved you can overcome injuries on the offensive line and have a great season.

Here’s what projects to be Florida’s starting line in game one of 2006:

* LT: #75 Phil Trautwein (junior)

* LG: #63 Jim Tartt (sophomore)

* C: #79 Steve Rissler (senior)

* RG: #67 Drew Miller (junior)

* RT: #70 Jason Watkins (sophomore)

If you want to make another rather incredible comparison, take a look at the Florida defensive line in 1996 to the Florida defensive line of 2006.

In 1996, Tim Beauchamp (#93, sophomore) started 10 games at left defensive end and one start at left tackle.

Ed Chester (#94, sophomore) started nine games, five at left tackle and four at right tackle.

Reggie McGrew (#92, freshman) started 11 games, nine at right tackle and two at left tackle.

Willie Rogers (#54, junior) started five games, four at right end and one at left end.

Willie Cohens (#55, sophomore) started three games at right end.

Cameron Davis (#56, senior) started four games at right end.

Anthony Mitchell (#98, freshman) started three games at right end.

Now let’s look at the 2006 defensive linemen:

Among the defensive ends, Ray McDonald (#95, senior) has played in 31 games with 22 starts in his career; Derrick Harvey has (#91, sophomore) has played in nine games; and Jarvis Moss (#94, junior) has played in 11 games.

Among the defensive tackles, Marcus Thomas (#44, senior) has played in 36 games with 26 starts; Stephen Harris (#93, senior) has played in 34 games with 12 starts; and Joe Cohen (#20, senior) has played in 34 games (10 on offense) with 21 starts on the defensive line.

You do the math. I loved the crew in 1996 but on paper this 2006 group really looks strong not to mention look how young they were in 1996!