SPRING: Jason Watkins Tackles the Challenge

No unit is undergoing more change this spring than the Florida offensive line. The Gators lost four starters up front from last fall, and the one returning starter Steve Rissler has moved from guard to center.

When spring practice began the inside of the offensive line looked much more established than the tackle positions. But that changed when Drew Miller, who started four games last year switched to tackle. Still with Rissler and Jim Tartt the Gators had more experience inside than out.

However with just a week to go in spring practice there are a lot of positive signs that the Gators will be fine up front. Ronnie Wilson looks like he has the potential to be a special player at one guard spot. Miller has taken to tackle very well and looks like Florida's best blocker at this time. And the other tackle position has evolved into a spirited battle between junior Phil Trautwein and sophomore Jason Watkins.

Watkins Making a Move

Jason Watkins was one of the nation's most highly sought offensive tackles two years ago. The Lakeland Lake Gibson product has the size to engulf opposing defenders and the mobility to become an outstanding pass protector. Many have wondered if Watkins might have been over-ranked, but I think that's ridiculous. Offensive linemen are rarely strong candidates to start until they are third year sophomores. It's that second spring practice that I think is so important to a player's development in the trenches. That's why Wilson, a redshirt freshman is able to make his move this spring --- he was here last spring.

Watkins has spent his time at UF slimming down to about 310 pounds and building up his strength. Like the rest of the guys up front, he also had to learn a new system last spring. However, this spring he looks like he's on the verge of tapping into his enormous potential. I spoke with him after practice the other day:

LV: Jason, how do you feel about your second spring at UF?

JW: Spring ball this year is going great for me. I feel like I've made a big improvement in the couple of years I've been here. I'm working harder every day and becoming a better player and a better person.

LV: Last year a couple of seniors (Randy Hand, Lance Butler) got almost all of the playing time at tackle and there wasn't much of an opportunity. Is your mindset different this spring now that there are open jobs to compete for?

JW: Oh yeah, this year I'm out to get it, whatever it takes I will do it. Last year was a learning experience for me, but I had to do my learning by watching the seniors play. I thank them for that, but this year is going to be our year.

LV: How would you evaluate the progress you are making as a player?

JW: I can't even explain it. From when I first got here to now is just way different. Even the defense is telling me how good I've gotten.

LV: You had to block Jeremy Mincey and Ray McDonald in practice last year. Now you line up against Jarvis Moss and Derrick Harvey day in and day out. What's that like?

JW: These might be the top defensive ends you could find in the country, and if you can block these guys the rest will be a piece of cake. Every day we get after it. If the defense slacks at all, we get on them because it's all about one goal. We gotta win championships.

LV: Coach Meyer talks about how he likes the chemistry of the offensive line this spring. How much of that is because with four seniors gone everyone is pretty much on equal footing?

JW: I believe it's more a case of all of us having a year in the system. Now that we got more familiar with it we're on the same page and going forward.

LV: So people who are worried about the offensive line…

JW: They're worried about the wrong thing. They're in for a surprise.

I also spoke with Gator offensive tackles coach Steve Addazio about the progress Watkins is making this spring:

LV: Coach, How do you see Jason Watkins' progress this spring?

SA: He's doing great. He's working really hard and has made a tremendous amount of improvement. Every day he is trying to be more physical and he's also trying to show some leadership. He's starting to digest the offense better, so he can play faster without thinking so much. We're real pleased with his development right now.

LV: Where would you say he's made the greatest strides?

SA: All phases. He's becoming a much better pass protector, which is the hardest thing to develop as a young guy. In the running game he's more confident coming off the ball and he's being more physical and there's more finish in his game.

LV: Where does he still have work to do?

SA: He's got to work on his "bend". He's a big, tall long-levered guy (6'6 ½"). So he's got to learn how to play lower and bend. He's focusing on that right now along with his footwork.

LV: Isn't that typical of taller offensive linemen?

SA: Yeah, it is. But here's his asset. In pass protection he has long arms and has tremendous reach. That enables him to get separation from those defensive ends, which is a real bonus.

LV: Do you think Jason and the other guys at tackle have a different attitude with the seniors gone and a chance to compete for playing time?

SA: I just think this is a terrific, young group of guys. I've got Carlton Medder, Jason Watkins, Drew Miller and Phil Trautwein. I think they're all hard-working guys who love football and are really into the tools of their trade. They are very coachable and bright-eyed every day, eager to learn new techniques. They're a lot of fun to be around and the competition level has been really high. It's been a good spring.

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