Predicting the Starters: Offensive Line

Despite losing the starting quarterback and key playmakers, there is still plenty of optimism around the Florida offense. A large part of that comes from returning four starting offensive linemen from last season.

Stability on the offensive line starts at center. Florida lost their center from last season, when Maurkice Pouncey declared for the NFL Draft and was taken in the first round by the Pittsburgh Steelers. He is expected to start on their offensive line, either at center or right guard.

His twin brother, Michael Pouncey, will slide from right guard to center this season for the Gators. He struggled with snapping the football to start spring practice, but he seemed to have it down by the time practices wrapped up. He saw the draft stock boost that his brother received for playing center, so Mike Pouncey had no trouble taking over for him.

His move does open up a spot at right guard. It is still up in the air and will be until someone steps up during fall. It looks like a three-man race between redshirt freshman Jon Halapio, senior Maurice Hurt and redshirt junior James Wilson.

Wilson was a five-star recruit that was expected to start early in his career. Multiple injuries and thoughts of transferring held him back, but this season is his best shot at having a starting position. Hurt has been a valuable backup who came in when an interior lineman got hurt over the past few seasons. Halapio could surprise everyone and win the job. The Florida coaches love his work ethic and the athleticism he shows while carrying 305 pounds.

A senior will handle right tackle. Marcus Gilbert struggled when he experienced his first meaningful playing time in 2008 at guard. He was lost and often made mistakes on blitz pickup, causing Tim Tebow to get hit in the backfield or scramble and try to create a play.

The 6-5, 322-pound tackle heads into his final season with understanding of his position. Tackle has been his natural position since he came to campus, evidenced by the strong season he had in 2009.

The left side of the offensive line will remain in tact from last season. Carl Johnson will man the left guard position. Despite his team high weight of 360 pounds, he has been effective in the run game by puling and becoming the lead blocker for running backs. His athleticism has gone under the radar because of his ability to carry that weight. Johnson came to campus as a five-star offensive tackle, but the added weight forced him to move inside to guard.

Xavier Nixon stabilized the offensive line last season as the left tackle. He made his first start near the end of the season at South Carolina. With his mother in the stands, Nixon didn't tell her before the game that he was starting. His debut as a true freshman showed the potential the Florida coaches knew he had, and a solid offseason could make it possible for a breakout season in 2010.

Breaking in a new quarterback is tough for any team, regardless of how talented the quarterback is. There are always hurdles to be crossed with a quarterback taking the reigns of the team for the first time. But with a solid offensive line returning for the Gators, there will be one less thing for quarterback John Brantley to worry about.

PREDICTED OFFENSIVE LINE STARTERS: Left tackle Xavier Nixon, left guard Carl Johnson, center Mike Pouncey, right guard James Wilson, right tackle Marcus Gilbert.

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