Gators' offensive line talking a bigger game

Improving protection for quarterback Jeff Driskel was one of Florida's top priorities this spring. Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Before Florida’s offensive line strapped on those shiny orange-and-black knee braces and trotted onto the Gators’ practice fields this spring, Tim Davis put them through visual torture.

The Gators’ offensive line had a very schizophrenic identity last season, so Florida’s second-year offensive line coach decided to show them all the horrors of the up-and-down play in pass protection.

Davis showed his linemen every one of the 39 sacks Florida’s line surrendered in 2012. The ugly sack reel was meticulously studied over and over for two or three days, but the torment didn’t stop there.

Once the Gators got on the field, Davis had Florida’s film crew capture video of each lineman’s one-on-one sessions with defenders.

Needless to say, things weren’t pretty for Florida’s big boys.

“Oh man, it was ugly,” left guard Max Garcia said with a laugh. “It was ugly in the beginning.

“We understood that we needed to improve in that area.”

And if this offense, which had a mediocre passing game, was going to improve this spring, the line had to turn things around.

Now, there were factors working against Florida’s line. Seasoned starters Xavier Nixon and James Wilson were gone and the line was so banged up that the Gators finished spring with six healthy linemen.

But that didn’t stop players from learning and evolving. The education started with the sack reel, where blame wasn't the goal but improvement was. Davis showed all of the mistakes, but instead of singling out players, he discussed what to fix and how to fix it.

The biggest thing linemen took from the film sessions was the lack of communication in pass protection last season. Florida ran the ball so well, averaging 188 rushing yards per game and 4.5 yards per carry, but were last in the SEC in passing (146.3 yards per game).

Talking just wasn’t there.

When blocking for the run, communication combinations usually take place with a lineman and another player for a certain defender. In pass block, that communication might have to go through four or more players.

To improve communication, linemen simply talked more in and out of the film room, center Jonotthan Harrison said. They also became more vocal with the running backs, tight ends and quarterback Jeff Driskel during practice. Having another spring to digest Brent Pease’s offense also helped.

“Now that we’ve developed this communication,” Harrison said, “our pass protection is going to be much more successful.”

Injuries hurt, but coach Will Muschamp should have 15 scholarship offensive linemen this fall -- eight or nine of which that will be game-ready. And those game-ready bodies have a lot of experience, including new transfer players, like Garcia and tackle Tyler Moore, who started for the injured Chaz Green at right tackle this spring.

Garcia (Maryland) and Moore (Nebraska) have 16 combined starts. Other potential starters -- Green, Harrison, Jon Halapio and D.J. Humphries -- have 81 combined starts.

“We’re much better up front right now,” Muschamp said.

“There are a lot of guys that have had a lot of at-bats. “I really feel comfortable about our depth and talent at the position.”

But it isn’t just the numbers and physical improvement from the line that have people in Gainesville more excited about this front. This crew is fueled by media criticism hurled their way last year.

“It always eats at us because O-Line is one of those positions that’s all work no credit,” Harrison said. “So as we do badly, it’s pointed out, but when we do the good things they really just underplay the efforts that the offensive line gives.

“We’re looking forward to proving everybody wrong, come season time, and prove that we can pass protect and we have worked on it.”

Despite low spring numbers, the coaches and teammates were happy with the line’s play. Obviously, real improvement won’t be made until the games begin, but people seemed convinced that a stronger line will take the field for the Gators this fall.

“They just want to be known as a nasty offensive line that can be able to run and power down your throat and can pass block,” Buck defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. said. “They want to be an offensive line that when a defensive line has to play against team they’re going to be like, ‘Well, we’re going to have a tough day today.’

“They take pride in that.”