It's all on the O-line for No. 23 Florida
GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP)
Florida returns six of its top seven offensive linemen from last season.
That could be good or bad.
The 23rd-ranked Gators were mostly mediocre up front in 2011, failing to consistently open holes for the running game and giving up almost as many sacks (23) as the offense scored touchdowns (30).
The result was a 7-6 season - Florida barely avoided its first losing season since 1979 - and then some major offseason changes aimed at rebuilding the trenches.
Coach Will Muschamp hired Tim Davis to replace Frank Verducci, who followed former offensive coordinator Charlie Weis to Kansas, and completely revamped the team's weight-lifting program in hopes of getting bulkier and brawnier linemen.
''There's been marked improvement up front from this time last year or really any time last year,'' said Muschamp, who called his team soft late last season, a shot many believe was directed mostly at the O-line. ''Now those guys have been playing together for a year, practicing with the same guys. That's a developmental position. That position takes time, and those guys have continued to take strides. Really, really pleased with what they've done.''
By all accounts, the line has looked considerably better in camp. The first real test comes Sept. 1 when Florida hosts Bowling Green in The Swamp. A better gauge might happen the following week at Texas A&M.
The Gators struggled to get much going against the Southeastern Conference heavyweights Alabama and LSU last season. Holes were scarce for speedy running backs Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps, and time was limited no matter who was standing in the pocket - John Brantley, Jeff Driskel or Jacoby Brissett.
The linemen insist things will be different this fall.
''I just think having a year under our belt (will help), especially playing together and going through the struggles last year and pulling together and being closer with these guys,'' guard Jon Halapio said. ''Definitely just playing with each for a year, we build that trust factor.''
Guard Dan Wenger was the only senior, so Halapio, left tackle Xavier Nixon, center Jon Harrison and right tackle Chaz Green are all back with added size, strength and experience. So is guard James Wilson, who hopes to make the most of his sixth year of eligibility.
Muschamp is relying on the line to make a difference this season.
Florida's offense ranked 105th in the nation last year, and with Brissett or Driskel to start the opener, the coach knows he won't have much experience under center. Brissett started two games in 2011 and played in five. Driskel also played in five, mostly in mop-up duty.
So Muschamp wants to be power running team that features Mike Gillislee, Mack Brown and freshman Matt Jones. Those guys are considerably bigger than Demps and Rainey, and if things go as planned along the line, they will be more effective between the tackles and over the course of the season.
''We know that what we put out last year isn't University of Florida, and this season we have to change that,'' Harrison said. ''That's our goal to change. We've been working hard all offseason to change this season around.''
It could hinge on the line - and a few guys returning to form.
Nixon battled an undisclosed illness in 2011 and dropped well below 300 pounds. Green missed four games because of an ankle injury. And Wilson spent part of last season on the scout team before working his way into the starting lineup for the Gator Bowl against Ohio State.
New strength coach Jeff Dillman was tasked with getting them in top shape, and Halapio said they're there now. Whether it helps on the field remains to be seen.
''From the start, after the bowl game, we came in with the mind-set that we're going to have to change everything around,'' Halapio said. ''Our attitude, our bodies, our strength, just everything. ... We're definitely going to be better, and I believe that.''