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Florida’s O-line has nearly as many concerns as starts

GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) Florida’s offensive line is a hodge-podge unit with nearly as many concerns as career starts.

It’s also an integral piece of new coach Jim McElwain’s plan to turn around one what has become one of the Southeastern Conference’s most inept offenses.

Whether the Gators can even take steps toward offensive respectability this season might hinge more on the five guys up front than quarterbacks Treon Harris and Will Grier. And the line doesn’t appear to be something Florida can or would even want to depend on right now.

After all, the group includes three sophomores with no starts between them, a graduate transfer from Fordham and a fifth-year senior with a bum shoulder. The linemen are aware they have doubters, but they’re also using that as motivation during training camp.

”We know. We hear. We want to prove them wrong,” said senior right tackle Mason Halter, who enrolled in June after being a three-year starter and two-time Football Championship Subdivision All-American at Fordham. ”We’re going to try to be the best offensive line we can be, and hopefully that’s the best in the whole country, the Southeastern Conference, anywhere else.”

No one expected the Gators to be in this situation.

Florida allowed just 17 sacks last season – inconsistent QB play was the main reason for the team’s 7-5 record and coach Will Muschamp’s firing – and ran the ball pretty well much of the year.

But offensive tackle D.J. Humphries and guard Tyler Moore jumped to the NFL, following seniors Chaz Green, Max Garcia and Trenton Brown out the door.

A more crushing blow to Florida’s line came a few months later, when offensive tackle Rod Johnson was diagnosed with congenital cervical spinal stenosis. That’s a narrowing of the spinal canal that doesn’t allow enough fluid to gather around the spinal cord to properly protect it. One wrong hit can cause paralysis.

So Johnson’s career ended before it really even began.

His departure left the Gators even thinner on the line since left guard Trip Thurman, who started 10 games last season, missed the entire spring with a chronic shoulder injury.

Thurman spent the last seven months rehabbing. He’s back on the field now, but he understands he may be one play, one hit really, from another lengthy stay on the sideline.

”It wasn’t anything that I haven’t done before with my previous surgeries,” Thurman said. ”Just wanted to rehab really well and strengthen the surrounding muscles around them and hope for the best.”

The best-case scenario for Florida is that the line stays healthy and the newcomers – McElwain signed six freshmen, including highly touted recruit Martez Ivey, in February – pick things up quickly.

”It’s really about how they adapt and how they learn,” said McElwain, who expects a few of the freshmen to play right away. ”I’m not going to put a guy out there that’s not ready to go because … if you put someone out there too early, they can become a little shell-shocked and it takes a while to recover from that.

”You see it in this sport a lot where sometimes guys are rushed in to doing it. We’ll put them out there when they’re ready.”

It’s unclear if any of Florida’s linemen may really be ready.

Left tackle David Sharpe, center Cam Dillard and right guard Antonio Riles – all sophomores – will be making their first career starts when the Gators open the season against New Mexico State on Sept. 5. Thurman has the debilitating shoulder injury. And outside of practice, Halter has yet to face an SEC defender.

And the line already has depth issues, with sophomore and key backup Travaris Dorsey injuring a knee in practice Monday.

It was the latest concern added to the line’s long list.

”The key there is put your five best out there, just whoever those five best are,” McElwain said. ”That gives you the best opportunity to win the game and that’s what we’ll do.”

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