O-Line with Questions in 2011

The Florida Gators are starting new everywhere for the 2011 football season with a new offensive and a bit of a different defensive philosophy. With that, comes a few positions that will have adjustments in the depth chart. The Florida offensive line lost four seniors from the 2010, but there still a bit to work with. Experience is at a premium, but the talent should be there for a solid line.

The offensive line is such a vital part of the offense on every play. In a versatile offense like the Gators will display in the 2011 season a lot more emphasis will be placed on protecting a pocket quarterback and at least a little less on zone oriented rushing schemes.

Under offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, the tackles will be asked to stand their ground and force pass rushers to the deep outside looking for those long and lean tackles with great arm extension and strength. Eventually, the interior linemen will be bulkier and are going to be asked to move a close pile rather than constantly running down field to take on several blockers at every level of the defense.

Of course some of the former will be used, but the bottom line is the protections and blocking schemes up front are going to be different. Offensive line coach Frank Verducci has a history of adjusting well to his personnel, but he will also have to work within the confines of the Gators' new offense, something he is used to.

Add to the newness the lack of experience. This Florida offensive line will be the most inexperienced since the 2006 national championship team that returned seven starts total among the five starters and only two players that had started a game before. Florida now has a handful of offensive linemen that have started games, but injuries to some of them have jeopardized those numbers as well.

The numbers are not great on the offensive line. When all are healthy, I think the line is still a couple of players short of the optimum. However, the key here is finding 8-9 players that can really help and get them coached up.

Here is one man's look at the Florida offensive line as we move into spring practice which starts in two weeks.

Center

As we saw at the start of the 2010 season the center position is important in so many ways. The Gators will likely use a lot less shotgun snapping on offense in 2011, but it won't disappear altogether. Snapping is just part of the position's duties but one that we saw was a very important one last year. However the center is usually responsible for the line calls and adjustments and is the starting point on every play.

Heading into spring it appears that junior Sam Robey (6-4, 293) will be the front runner for the job. Robey has very little game experience, but was very highly thought of by the previous staff. He has the ideal build and athleticism for the position and also appears to have the intellect to handle all the nonphysical portions of the position.

At every position we will name a couple to three swing players that may be slotted somewhere else, but could also supply some help as a backup plan. At center, junior Nick Alajajian (6-4, 295) and sophomore Kyle Koehne (6-5, 300) are both guys that have practiced the position extensively during their time at Florida. Both are also entering their third year and are physically developed enough to contribute.

The Bottom Line at Center: in the last six seasons the Gators have only had a center start two years in-a-row, once. That was Maurkice Pouncey in 2008-2009. Getting the right guys is important, but lack of experience, while not favorable, is not the end of the world. There are very capable players for the center position.

Guard

The Gators return a few players that have some experience at guard. Florida will be looking for pile movers here, round bodies if you will. Gone are Carl Johnson and Mo Hurt, two guys that played a lot of football in their time.

We will have to start with sophomore Jon Halapio (6-3, 312). Halapio is the most seasoned of the returning interior linemen. He is also a guy that was caught quite a few times blocking the wrong man a year ago and allowing his opponent to make the play in the backfield. Rushed into playing as a true freshman, the staff loved Halapio's aggressive play and that is why he got on the field. His aggressiveness got the better of him a few times and he jumped to the wrong defender, but he was rarely physically beaten by anyone on the field. He is big and powerful which bodes well for his play in this offense.

Junior Nick Alajajian was mentioned as a swing guy at center, but should be able to do well as a guard in this offense. Alajajian is another that is big, strong, and nasty. He plays with a mean streak that should get him noticed early in practice and spring drills.

Sophomore Jonnothan Harrison (6-3, 300), like Halapio and Alajajian is in his third year and physically ready to perform. Harrison doesn't show the aggressive play as much, but when he gets into it, he can be as physically imposing and nasty as any of them. A year older may help with his consistency.

Some may find it odd that I placed him here, but to me freshman Chaz Green (6-5, 290) looks to be more of an interior lineman than a tackle. I think green has immense potential and will push the others, but his body shape and playing style screams guard in this offense. He will push for a starting job as well and even as a freshman a year ago seemed physically ready to contribute.

The lone swing player at the guard position is freshman Leon Orr (6-5, 320). His quick feet will keep him at tackle or may even allow him to slide to defense, but his body type and size say guard to me. Orr is a rare athlete that can really run for his size, so pigeonholing him at a position is likely going to make you look wrong at this point. Staying healthy is key and had he done so a year ago he probably would have played as a true freshman.

The wildcard at guard is senior James Wilson (6-5, 315). Wilson came to Florida as a five-star talent out of high school and was playing early in his career. He has a knee issue that is very unlikely to ever heal completely, and we honestly don't know if he will play at all. If he can play near his potential, he is starting material. He wants to play, but time will tell if that really happens.

Another on the injury ride is junior David Young (6-4, 305) who came to Florida recovering from two broken knee caps. The knees still give him fits from time to time, but he is still trying to get on the field.

Two freshmen Tommy Jordan (6-5, 295) and Trip Thurman (6-6, 310) will likely redshirt in 2011. The numbers at guard and those that can play the position seem to be enough to allow the young guys to try and mature in the system.

The Bottom Line at Guard: There are plenty of numbers and physical talent at guard for Florida in 2011. Getting the right guys out there are important and that is what spring is for. In my opinion Jon Halapio is likely one starter while Nick Alajajian is the guy with the most to offer at the other spot at this time. I don't coach them, so the battles here in the spring will be quite interesting to see who wants it more.

Tackle

Long and lean with strength and upper body power and quick feet is the name of the game at tackle. The Gators have some of it, but by the looks of their recruiting and what they are trying to sign, they are looking for more. Still, there are some pieces here that could very well form into a very good group.

The Gators have to replace Marcus Gilbert at one tackle spot and he has been a staple for the last two years having played very well there. Junior Xavier Nixon (6-6, ???) will have to fight off his affinity for not gaining weight in order to be a difference maker again like he was as a freshman all-SEC player in 2009. It can be done and Nixon weighed in at 245 in March before showing up to Florida in '09 and by the time the season started he weighed in at 305. Getting the weight under wraps is something that will get him back to that five-star status he saw as a recruit.

Sophomore Ian Silberman (6-5, 290) was able to play as a true freshman a year ago in large part to the fact he was an early enrollee and practiced last spring, but he is also a very savvy and physical player on the edge. Silberman will make a strong push for a starting spot in 2011 and I would consider him a front runner for one of those spots.

We mentioned sophomore Kyle Koehne earlier as a swing man at center, but he has the real look of a tackle at the collegiate level. Koehne has little experience, but should put up a good fight outside.

We also mentioned freshman Leon Orr as a swing man at guard but his quick feet are what make him a good bet outside. Orr actually played tight end in high school at 320 pounds and it is that athletic ability that could do well for him if harnessed correctly. Again, he may very well be a target for the defensive line as well, a position he was originally recruited to play at Florida.

Until he plays again it is hard to put junior Matt Patchan (6-6, 275) in the mix right now because of all the injuries he incurs and misses time on the field and in the weight room. Apparently he is on the upswing and while he will miss the spring from a second surgery to his wrist, he is expected to be fully healthy for the fall. Patchan was a five-star prospect out of high school as well and has shown some of that potential on the field when he was able to play.

Sour lone swing guy at tackle for now is freshman Chaz Green who we had working at guard. Green was recruited as a tackle and may very well line up there. He has more of a stout body which is why I listed him on the interior, but he also has the long arms and strength to play outside.

The Bottom Line at Tackle: if Nixon and Patchan are physically ready to go in the fall, this group takes a monumental shift to the positive. Right now, the depth is thin and very inexperienced and that isn't what you want.

In the end, the Gators should be able to field a pretty strong starting five along the offensive line from the group mentioned above. Finding those next three or four players to fill in when needed is something that might be hard to do.


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