Bigger, strong, tougher

Florida is counting on its offensive line to make progress this fall

Updated: April 2, 2012, 10:03 AM ET
By Michael DiRocco | GatorNation

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- It has been four months since Florida coach Will Muschamp ripped his team for not being mentally or physically tough, but the words still sting, especially for the offensive linemen.

So much so that center Jonotthan Harrison doesn't want to talk about it.

"Last year was last year," he said. "We're just going to keep working hard to get better for this upcoming season."

[+] EnlargeJon Halapio
AP Photo/Phelan M. EbenhackGuard Jon Halapio has been UF's most consistent lineman for two seasons.
Not talking about it, however, doesn't make it less true. The Gators weren't tough up front in 2011, and the stats prove it. They ran for just 175 yards and zero touchdowns and kicked just four field goals in seven red-zone trips in the month of October. Granted, it was a tough month -- Alabama, LSU, Auburn and Georgia -- but those kind of numbers are unacceptable.

It will be another six months before anyone can really tell if the Gators have gotten tougher up front, but Muschamp has seen some encouraging signs through the first three weeks of spring practice. The practices have been more physical, and the Gators have worked a lot on running the ball in the red zone.

"Yeah, we've made strides. I really believe that," Muschamp said. "We'll find out in the fall. But I think as a coach you look back and for the first time you felt like there were some pads popping for the first time in [an early] practice. There was some pad level, there was some strike, there was some north-south, vertical running.

"I think it's getting a little better, and I think we've made some strides. We still have a ways to go."

The defensive linemen can see a difference. The players are stronger and tougher physically, but there's also a different attitude, defensive tackle Omar Hunter said.

"I feel like they're way more physical, definitely," Hunter said. "When they got in the red zone, they were running the ball very hard. Guys were pulling together. They looked like they were more together. They look like they're more together this year. When times did get hard they all did pull together and say, 'Let's go, let's go. We've got to finish blocks, finish plays.' "

Hunter recalled one incident this spring in which one of the linemen had a false start penalty. The reaction from the rest of the line was much different than it was last year.

"Instead of all the offensive linemen jumping on him and getting mad, which is what they did last year when they were younger, what they did was say, 'It's OK. Let's pick it up the next play and everything is going to be all right,' " Hunter said. "That's probably the biggest difference I've seen."

The projected starting offensive line for the 2012 season all played and started games in 2011, but it was a relatively inexperienced group going into last season. Left tackle Xavier Nixon was the most experienced, with 22 games and 13 starts. Left guard James Wilson, who had four knee surgeries and two broken feet, had played in 26 games but started only five. Harrison had played in 13 games (no starts). Right guard Jon Halapio had played in 15 games (seven starts), and right tackle Matt Patchan had played in 15 games, and his only start came at defensive tackle in 2008.

The experience the group gained last season, even though it struggled, was invaluable, Muschamp said. Plus, the group has benefitted from a new Olympic-style weightlifting program under new strength and conditioning coordinator Jeff Dillman. It uses more explosive lifts, which increase total body strength and should help the group be quicker off the ball.

"I think a year under your belt, you're a year older, a year stronger, a year smarter hopefully," Muschamp said. "We're seeing some improvements and some gains from that. And playing together, I think the offensive line and secondary are two positions where you have to be on the same page as far as calls and different things you do. You've got to be working together. You do see a lot of carryover with those guys playing together. I think we've made some strides up front, I really do."

Mike DiRocco | email

ESPN Jacksonville Jaguars reporter