Dillard preparing as Gators' starting center

Florida center Cameron Dillard knew he wasn’t going to play much when he went into fall camp over the last two years. This one is different.

As a true freshman in 2013, Dillard sat behind senior starter Jonatthan Harrison. When he graduated, the Gators had to get creative to find their center in 2014. The coaching staff eventually asked Max Garcia to move to center, and after a few snapping problems last spring, he turned into a dominant center and was taken in the fourth round of the NFL Draft by the Denver Broncos.

Harrison spent time at center for Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck last season, and Max Garcia is currently the first-team left guard for the Denver Broncos and quarterback Peyton Manning.

It’s big shoes for Dillard to fill, but it also means he was able to learn from some talented players in recent years. Working as the second-team center behind Garcia last year, Dillard was able to watch every move he made. What jumped out the most is Garcia’s vocal leadership on and off the field.

“He was very good at reading the offensive line, getting the guys on the same page,” Cameron Dillard said. “Just the way he played, always 100 percent, full max effort. He was a really good guy to be behind last year and learn things like that from him.”

Garcia was one of eight scholarship offensive linemen from last year’s roster that left because of graduation, early entry to the NFL Draft or injury. He has been behind some talented linemen, but it also empties out the experience at the position. The Gators returns just one offensive lineman -- left guard Trip Thurman -- who has ever started a game at Florida.

That makes Dillard’s role even more important. He’s the leader of a group that’s only experience playing together came in the spring. He has to make sure the group is lined up properly and doesn’t have any communication issues.

“It’s definitely a big key,” Dillard said. “Offensive line, you’ve got to have five guys on the same page so you have to talk every play, every snap. What are you doing? Making sure everybody is on the right page, making sure everybody is going to the right linebackers. That’s crucial when you’re trying to get on the same page with five guys going the same way.”

Florida defensive linemen are noticing the improvement for Dillard, even since the end of spring practice. Defensive tackle Joey Ivie has been going up against Dillard in practice for the last three years and has seen the starting center come a long way, citing his vocal leadership as the most improved part.

“He’s looked good,” Ivie said. “I’d say he’s made a difference from spring to fall. He’s come around a lot.”

Dillard has also been working with freshmen centers Tyler Jordan and T.J. McCoy. The redshirt sophomore remembers how important it was to his development to watch older players work hard and do the right thing, making it even more important for him to set an example for the younger players.

The biggest challenge for first-year offensive linemen, especially centers, is to know all of the responsibility put on the position before the snap.

“Just making sure they know their assignments, where to go, the linebackers, points and stuff like that,” Dillard said. “Because in the center, you’ve got to say where the linebacker is, set the point and make sure everybody’s going to the right point. Just helping those guys get along the same page. Everybody’s got to be ready to play.”

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