GAINESVILLE -- At the end of last season, Florida’s offensive line was the bad guy.
With a 7-6 record, there was plenty of blame to go around, but most of the fingers were pointed at the offensive line. The Gators were pushed around up front far too often, contributing to coach Will Muschamp infamously calling his team soft.
Changes were made. A new position coach and strength coordinator were brought in and practices have been ramped up with an added emphasis on physicality.
The result? Offensive coordinator Brent Pease said recently that the offensive line was the strongest unit of the team. The Gators are 20th nationally in rushing with an average of 224.5 yards per game. And Muschamp has repeatedly said the offensive line’s growth spring has been remarkable.
But going into a game against No. 4 LSU on Saturday, it’s the offensive line that will be relied upon to prove its sterling start isn’t a fluke. Muschamp said this game will prove if all that praise was warranted.
“You go block this front you’ve done something,” he said. “They’re very good. They’ve recruited well. They’ve got depth. They’re big, fast and physical.”
Defensive ends Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery are projected as first-round picks in next year’s NFL Draft, and the Tigers rotate eight to 10 guys on the defensive line, allowing the unit to stay fresh.
Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel said he knows what kind of challenge the unit presents.
“That front four is the best that we’ll see all year,” he said. “It’s loaded with first-round draft picks. Our line is ready for the challenge, and we’ll be ready to go Saturday.”
The word from players and coaches is that the line has continued to make progress each week.
After allowing eight sacks against Texas A&M in Week 2, it did not give up a sack in a road victory against Tennessee. And after struggling in short-yardage situations in the first three games, Florida was 8 for 8 on third-and-short against Kentucky and also punched the ball into the end zone for scores twice from inside the 2, something that has been an issue dating to last season. But the Gators’ offensive linemen are not satisfied.
“No week has been perfect,” center Jonothan Harrison said. “We can’t say we had a perfect game. We didn’t have a perfect game. There’s some mistakes that we could easily fix.”
Harrison pointed to false-start penalties as an issue, with those mistakes accounting for seven of the team’s 32 flags. Tackle Kyle Koehne has been caught twice in the last two games.
“We can never be satisfied in what we can do,” right guard Jon Halapio said. “I think we can always get better. There’s always improvements.”
The play up front should receive a boost Saturday from the return of right tackle Chaz Green after he missed the past two games. Green, a redshirt sophomore, started nine games last season, and Pease said his return would be a “big plus.”
At the other tackle spot, freshman D.J. Humphries is pushing to supplant senior Xavier Nixon. Humphries replaced Nixon at halftime of the Kentucky game two weeks ago, and coaches have said it would be an open competition in practice this week for the starting spot. Should Humphries start Saturday, he said he will be up for the challenge.
“It’s real tough any time you stick a freshman out there and you put him under fire like that,” Pease said.
But even though Florida is dealing with some potential shakeups at the tackle spots and will be facing arguably one of the best defensive fronts in the country, Driskel said he is confident the line will be ready.
“They’ve proved it every game so far,” he said. “I believe they’ll continue to do so. They’re the strength of our offense. That’s what we’ve been saying since spring and they haven’t let us down yet.”