Gators’ D.J. Humphries showing growth at left tackle

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The move was not one he wanted to make.

He resisted at first when his coach at Mallard Creek High in Charlotte, N.C., Mike Palmieri, told Gators sophomore D.J. Humphries that he planned to move Humphries from the defensive line to left tackle.

Humphries’ unique blend of size and speed and agility was different than anyone on the team, or for that matter, anyone on the Mavericks’ schedule. At 6-foot-5 and close to 250 pounds, Humphries was the kind of athlete capable of making spin moves on the basketball court and running crisp pass routes at football practice.

“I always thought I was going to be a tight end,” Humphries said. “Ever since I’ve been playing football, I’ve always run routes and done cone drills and all the drills [you do as a tight end]. I’ve been doing them since I was 9 or 10.”

Humphries played sparingly on the offensive line as a freshman on the JV team, and then as a sophomore on the varsity, he split time at defensive end and left tackle.

With a state-championship caliber team, Mallard Creek’s coaching staff viewed Humphries as a prototypical left tackle and wanted to anchor him there.

Mallard Creek offensive coordinator Aaron Brand, a former quarterback at Emory & Henry (Va.) College, had seen Humphries play left tackle when Brand’s former school, Independence High, faced Mallard Creek twice in 2009 when Humphries was a sophomore.

Brand easily recognized Humphries’ physical talents when he watched game film to prepare for the matchups. Still, Brand saw an offensive lineman as raw as a fresh wound.

“I didn’t think he was a great player yet,” Brand said. “He just didn’t have a clue why he was doing what he was doing. He was a defensive guy trying to play offense.”

By the time Humphries’ junior season at Mallard Creek began in 2010, Brand had left Independence, where former Gators quarterback Chris Leak starred in high school, to join Mallard Creek’s staff as offensive coordinator.

Brand and Humphries instantly hit it off.

“We formed a tight bond,” Humphries said.

“If I were in high school, he would have been my best friend,” Brand added. “He was so mature and so willing and so eager.”

They studied film, practiced technique and talked a lot of football over the summers prior to Humphries’ junior and senior seasons. Two guys who loved the game and in Brand’s case, saw a potential star student.

They also made a lot of trips to Sonic together after practice as Humphries tried to put on weight to play the offensive line. He went from around 240 pounds to 259 pounds by the time he finished his senior season.

“We are Slurpee kings,” Brand said. “We gained about 20 pounds together over both of those summers.”

Once Humphries embraced the change from defensive end to left tackle, he began to dissect the position the way he might an opponent on film.

He quickly learned how the left tackle position has evolved in the game’s hierarchy, detailed so well in author Michael Lewis’ 2006 best-seller “The Blind Side.” Some NFL executives view the left tackle as the most important position in the game after quarterback.

That means huge contracts for the men who have the rare blend of skills that make elite left tackles a highly coveted species on draft day. Central Michigan left tackle Eric Fisher (Kansas City) and Texas A&M left tackle Luke Joeckel (Jacksonville) were the first two picks in April’s NFL Draft.

In a recent interview with Humphries, it was obvious Florida’s rising sophomore did his homework in high school. He mentioned the sack former Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor made in a “Monday Night Football” game against the Redskins on Nov. 18, 1985, nearly a decade before Humphries was born.

The play is one Lewis documents in his book to illustrate the left tackle’s ascension in the game. Taylor sacked Washington quarterback Joe Theismann in what remains one of the ghastliest injuries captured on live television. The then-36-year-old Theismann suffered a career-ending broken right leg that snapped below the knee.

Redskins starting left tackle Joe Jacoby, arguably the greatest left tackle of his generation, was injured and forced to watch from the sideline as Theismann twisted in pain on the turf. Russ Grimm, the Redskins’ All-Pro left guard, moved over to left tackle that night at RFK Stadium.

Grimm was an excellent interior lineman — he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2010 — but four inches shorter and 30 pounds lighter than Jacoby, Taylor’s path to Theismann was easier to navigate.

As he adjusted to his new position, Humphries absorbed all the knowledge he could and started to put it to work on the field his junior season.

“After I knew I wasn’t going to play defensive line at all, I was like, ‘I might as well try to figure this out since this is going to be me.’ That’s what I figured out,” Humphries said. “I kind of fell in love with it.”

College recruiters soon started to fall in love with Humphries.

His Florida teammates learned what all the fuss was about when Humphries joined the program in January 2012 as an early enrollee. He was down the depth chart but showed up ready to work each practice that spring.

“He possesses the urgency and I guess the charisma, almost, that a left tackle needs,” senior center Jon Harrison said. “He is not nonchalant about anything he does. He really competes every single rep. He has this mentality that he would rather sacrifice his body than rather sacrifice the quarterback’s body, and that’s what a left tackle has to do.”

The biggest adjustment Humphries had to make — besides packing on some extra pounds — was a technique flaw Brand noticed when he coached against Humphries in 2009.

Humphries was still using a right-hand stance when he lined up at left tackle.

“That was the first thing I wanted to change,” Brand said. “I basically told him, ‘if you are going to make some money one day, you’ve got to start doing this the right way.’ It was a tough transition for him. After he mastered that, the rest is kind of history.”

Humphries was on the radar of every major school in the country when his senior season at Mallard Creek started in the fall of 2011.

Humphries made multiple trips to visit Tennessee’s campus, but when it was time to commit, he opted to sign with the Gators. ESPN and rated Humphries the No. 1 left tackle prospect in the country his senior season of high school.

After arriving at UF, Humphries’ first task was to get in the weight room and training room so he could add weight. He is listed at 280 pounds entering this season. Humphries, whom Brand said he never saw allow a sack in high school, played in all 13 games as a freshman.

He started three games and despite his lack of experience and being on the lighter side for a left tackle, Gators coach Will Muschamp is pleased by the way Humphries has adjusted to the college game.

“D.J. Humphries has had an outstanding camp at left tackle,” Muschamp said. “[He] was playing left tackle at 260 pounds last year. That’s not perfect-world. He did it and did it at a high level. Now, he’s up to 280. He’s anchoring better; he’s playing really good football for us.”

Humphries’ footwork is exceptional for a player his size and he has improved his hand technique.

Always adept at blocking pass rushers off the edge thanks to his agile feet, the additional weight has made Humphries’ life in the SEC trenches against 300-pound defensive linemen easier.

He backed up senior Xavier Nixon last year and made his first career start against South Carolina when Nixon was sidelined by an injury.

“I was really just trying to get my body right,” Humphries said. “I feel like I took pretty good advantages of my opportunities. Learning how to ankle down and take a bull rush, that was the biggest thing. I had never played against guys who were bigger than me.”

With the Gators expected to open up the passing game more in offensive coordinator Brent Pease’s second season, Humphries’ role in protecting second-year starting quarterback Jeff Driskel is critical to Florida’s long-term success.

In Muschamp’s first season the Gators’ season was derailed when starting quarterback John Brantley was injured on a sack against Alabama.

Driskel isn’t concerned about his blind side with Humphries on watch.

“He’s gotten a ton bigger,” Driskel said. “You don’t really see freshmen come in, especially in the SEC, and play on the offensive line. Usually you redshirt, wait a year and then play your redshirt sophomore year. But he’s got experience. He’s been here before and he’s put on a lot of weight. So I’m excited for him.”

Pease is, too. The veteran offensive coordinator has seen a more polished player in fall camp.

“I would expect him to be way more consistent on some things he got beat on and certain pass-rush moves, and he’s shown that,” Pease said. “The quickness that he is playing with, understanding the area in the pocket that he’s got to protect for the passer, understanding the schemes, outside pressure, adjusting pass sets … He is now way more in tune.”

Some of Humphries’ athleticism can be traced to his father, also named D.J. Humphries, who was a two-sport standout at Presbyterian (S.C.) College and later spent time in camp with the Baltimore Ravens and played in the Arena Football League. The father was a 6-foot-4 receiver. The son remains a work in progress, on track to develop into one of those elite left tackle prospects that hear their named called early during the NFL Draft.

Humphries is determined to increase his weight to where he is playing ideally at around 295 pounds.

Still, the tools are there even if the pounds are lagging behind.

To stay connected to where this left-tackle journey began Humphries texts regularly with Brand. His former mentor reminds Humphries to “keep that edge” and to focus on football and his grades.

The rest will take of itself.

“You knew with the speed and the feet that he had, he was made to protect the quarterback’s backside,” Brand said.