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Eager For a Healthy Start

Xavier Nixon smiled when asked the question, one he knew was coming. Florida’s junior left tackle was queried about his weight, or more accurately, his lack of poundage, which is generally a strange inquisition for a strapping 6-5, 290-pounder.

Xavier Nixon

But just four months earlier, Nixon was shedding pounds as if he were a Jenny Craig spokesman. His weight had plummeted to 245 pounds and all involved were concerned about his shrinking frame.

“In the spring, I had a little sickness, I really didn’t have an appetite, and I had to get my weight back up,” said Nixon, who last remembered tipping the scales at 245 as a senior in high school. “I thought something was wrong, but they ran a bunch of tests and things and they all came back good. I didn’t have mono. They didn’t declare what it was, but as soon as my appetite came back, I began eating more. It was an issue, but I’ve gained about 40 pounds since the offseason.”

It wasn’t until the end of April that Nixon said he “started feeling good.” He had gone through spring drills, but like most members of Florida’s revamped offensive line, was hardly 100 percent.

“I was playing fine, I did well, but of course, being 245, you can’t play in the SEC when you have defensive tackles who are 300 pounds and up,” he said. “Being 290 will help a lot.”

Indeed, Nixon looks like he’s ready to resume a career that began with so much promise in 2009, when he took over the left tackle job and started the final five games of the season. But like most of his line mates, last season was a mighty struggle for Nixon, who lost his starting job due to knee surgery on his meniscus before the opener and never regained his prior form. Like just about everyone in the UF locker room, Nixon isn’t dwelling on the struggles of 2010.

“We’re just talking about getting ready to play, “ he said. “You can’t talk about the bad times (of last season) when things weren’t going well, because things won’t click then and we’ll be in the same situation we were, so we’re just moving on.”

Nixon’s pal, redshirt sophomore guard Jon Halapio, has noticed a difference and is pleased to see the return of a guy who earned SEC All-Freshman honors in 2009.

“I’m real excited to see him like this – he’s the most athletic player on the offensive line, he’s really physical,” Halapio said. “He’s really bigger, stronger and faster than before and I’m really excited to see him play. I wasn’t that concerned. Xavier Nixon has the mindset that if he wants to get something done, he gets it done. He got his weight back up and now it’s time to roll.

“I don’t think weight really matters, that’s not the true test for an offensive lineman. You can’t be 150 obviously, but if you’re physical enough, fast enough, smarter than the other guy you’re playing against, that’s the key for an offensive lineman.”

Nixon’s coaches have taken notice as well. Although head coach Will Muschamp was not around for the previous two seasons, he knew something was not right this spring with his projected top left tackle. But a healthy offseason, plus a dose of strength and conditioning work under coach Mickey Marotti, and Nixon is a renewed man.

Xavier Nixon changed his body in the offseason – he’s up to 290 pounds,” Muschamp said. “He was always athletically exactly what you wanted in a left tackle. But now he’s got a little more girth to him, a little more punch and power to him in his body.”

Nixon, philosophical about the physical nature of football, doesn’t want to forget the troubles he experienced.

“It’s part of the game – you can’t really complain about it, you can’t let yourself get down, you’ve got to keep your head up and get back as soon as you can,” Nixon said. “I’ve got like three sets (of crutches), I’ve got ‘em all under my bed. It’s a reminder, just to know that it all can end, today, right now.”

As a result, Nixon, who did come back for the USF game last season and started eight times, can’t contain his excitement about the impending start of a new year. And even though he’s still feeling his way back, he realizes he’s also going to have to be one of the leaders on a relatively young, rebuilt offensive line.

“I accept the responsibility, because I always considered myself a leader, always tried to lead by example, do the right things, and be supportive of my teammates,” he said. “It’s the most excited I’ve been in a long time. Playing football, being at this school, I’m happy every day. I come here to work, I come here, smiling – it’s a good team to be around.”

One subject that will produce the biggest grins for Nixon is his new position coach, veteran NFL offensive line guru Frank Verducci.

“He’s brought a calm, a professional approach, it’s businesslike,” Nixon said. “His knowledge of the game is great. I haven’t learned this much . . . the things he shows us daily, I learn something every day. He’s just a great guy.

“The switch to the pro-style from the spread is a lot different. It’s a lot different technically. The transition is not that hard with Verducci because he makes it really easy for us. (The system doesn’t matter) I just prefer football. As long as I get to hit somebody, I’m happy.”

And for now, Nixon will be able to mix it up while no longer at a physical disadvantage. Along with the rest of the guys in the meeting room, Nixon is well aware of the outside concerns about this year’s offensive line.

“We really don’t get into expectations and predictions, because that’s all they are, predictions,” he said. “At the end of the day, predictions don’t always pan out. I can’t control (other peoples’) opinions, I can only control what goes on with this offensive line and with this team.

“We’re just going to keep a level head and come into this season ready. We’re just going to play our game.”

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