GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- With the 2012 season officially in the books, GatorBait.net continues a two-part series that will examine each position group for the Gators. We'll take a look at how the position group fared during the season, improvements needed and how the position looks going forward into the 2013 season. Today, we take a close look at the offensive line.
Right guard Jon Halapio helped an improved Florida line that got the Gators to 11 wins, but work is still needed.
Florida's offensive line was pointed to as arguably the biggest problem area on the offense, and perhaps a bit unfairly. After all, the unit was also responsible for a massive improvement in the running game, which is ultimately what helped swing things completely in the 2012 season for the Gators.
The Gators fielded a fairly experienced unit, with essentially four starters returning and a sixth-year senior stepping in at left guard -- an upgrade.
Florida was an excellent run-blocking unit all year long when healthy. The Gators really took well to the zone running scheme, looking more comfortable in it in Year 2.
They helped Mike Gillislee become the first 1,000-yard back at Florida since 2004, quite an accomplishment.
More importantly, the majority of Gillislee's yards came between the tackles, and the Gators were able to run right at the teeth of defenses late in games. That helped Florida wear down opponents and win with strong defense and special teams.
Still, the offensive line had plenty of room for improvement in pass blocking. Quite simply, the line never figured it out and it really hindered quarterback Jeff Driskel's growth.
Forced to replace two starters, the line will really need to improve its pass blocking to move forward in the offseason.
As an overall evaluation, Florida's run blocking was fairly good and consistent throughout the season. A few factors come to mind.
First, the Gators were extremely good blocking down, which is a big part of the equation in a zone blocking scheme. Where Florida can improve its run blocking is guard pulls.
Having an excellent fullback like Hunter Joyer and an underrated blocking tight end in Jordan Reed helped significantly mask that deficiency, but finding slightly quicker pulling guards will help improve that aspect of the zone running scheme.
In terms of pass protection, Florida still loses one-on-one battles far too frequently. However, the biggest problem for the line was failing to identify middle blitzers, particularly when delayed.
The blame doesn't fall entirely on the line there -- Driskel has to do a better job helping them pick those up.
Individually, the evaluations are as follows.
Xavier Nixon struggled the most in pass protection. He had trouble blocking both bull rushers and speed rushers, frequently getting beaten. His inability to consistently block better defenders also made him jumpier at the line, and he finished as Florida's most penalized lineman.
Wilson was a major upgrade from Dan Wenger at left guard. He was a road-grader in the run game and actually pulled much more effectively than expected when healthy. His pass protection was solid most of the time.
Jon Harrison was fairly consistent throughout the year, but he probably didn't improve as much as expected. He was an above-average run blocker, but he struggled in pass protection.
Too often Harrison would help double a defensive tackle with a guard while leaving a middle blitzer untouched. That's an area he must improve, in conjunction with Driskel and the guards on either side.
Halapio was a good run blocker but had problems in pass protection. His main issue was dealing with stunts to the inside from quicker ends, with Halapio a little slow to react.
Chaz Green was similar to Harrison in that he didn't progress quite as well as expected. He didn't stand out on film much, but he did have some problems in pass protection. He didn't move his feet quickly enough to pick up faster defensive linemen, leaving Driskel to fend off an unblocked rusher several times.
Other linemen who played were D.J. Humphries, Ian Silberman and Sam Robey. Humphries showed excellent upside as an extra blocker, flashing good footwork and side-to-side mobility. Silberman showed improvement as an interior blocker and could actually figure into the guard mix in the future.
Florida has to replace the left side of the line, with both Nixon and Wilson graduating. There could be more movement than just that, too.
Harrison is likely the only player that can feel comfortable with his starting role heading into next season with a handful of talented players coming in this spring.
Nebraska transfer Tyler Moore figures to come in and compete for a starting tackle job, which means the Gators will likely have a three-man battle between him, D.J. Humphries and Chaz Green.
Humphries looked fairly comfortable at left tackle for a true freshmen, and his upside with another full offseason to bulk up will be considerable.
That could mean Moore, who started four games for Nebraska in 2011 at right tackle, ends up competing with Green for his starting job. Should he win, there's a chance Green slides inside to one of the guard positions.
There are plenty of options at guard, too. Halapio is back at right guard but certainly not guaranteed to keep his spot.
Maryland transfer Max Garcia will be eligible to play after sitting out a season, and he will compete for a job. Jessamen Dunker is done with his redshirt season, and the coaching staff is extremely high on his potential.
Dunker will likely compete for the left guard spot, while Garcia will challenge him. Garcia could also play right guard if needed.
The offensive line battle will be compelling to watch throughout the spring and the offseason, because virtually no spots are guaranteed. The Gators need massive improvement there, and having had a job for a year or two won't necessarily mean keeping it.
Florida's newcomers will be counted on early, and the Gators won't hesitate to play them if they think they can upgrade up front.