GAINESVILLE — When offensive lineman Dan Wenger joined the Florida football team this summer, he received a second chance at playing the game he loves, and the Gators received what might turn out to be an invaluable gift.
Wenger played at Notre Dame for four years under then-coach Charlie Weis, now the Gators' offensive coordinator. Two concussions sustained in fall practice before the 2010 season cost him his final year of eligibility at Notre Dame. Wenger was later granted a sixth year of eligibility.
"There are some things in the past that I wish went differently, but that's the way it is," Wenger said. "I'm still here fighting, I've got a second chance at football and I'm here playing, trying to make every day count. This is instilled in me. It's instilled in me to keep fighting, and I'm going to keep fighting."
Florida lost four starters from last year's offensive line. Multiple player injuries hampered the line's ability to work together in the spring to learn a system drastically different from the spread offense. That's where Wenger has proved invaluable.
"It has been very beneficial, especially in the summertime because we can't have any contact as far as football is concerned," coach Will Muschamp said. "So in essence he was a coach on the field. He's a guy that has been in the system three or four years. He understands it, is very smart. … He's been a very valuable part of what we're trying to do and helping some of the young guys. But they are all young because it's the first year for everybody."
In a perfect world, Muschamp would like to have 18 offensive linemen on scholarship. He has 13, which will have to do for now. If the season were to start today, Muschamp said, Xavier Nixon would be at left tackle, Ian Silberman and James Wilson rotating at left guard and Jon Harrison at center backed up by Sam Robey. Matt Patchan and Chaz Green would rotate at right tackle, and Jon Halapio and Nick Alajajian would rotate at right guard.
Wenger, 6 feet 3 and 294 pounds, has been rotating at all three spots while navigating a player-coach role.
"They won't necessarily come to me about coaches, but they'll ask me about stuff in the playbook," he said. "Just the other night we had a few guys on our downtime going over stuff in the film room, helping them out, and we did that a lot all summer. We watched film twice a week, and we were able to just try to get everyone more on the same page so we weren't too far behind coming in.
"I know what it's like coming in with a new offense, coming in as a freshman with Coach Weis' system — your head spins constantly."
Knowing what's at stake and how important their role will be in this pro-style offense, many of the Gator linemen have worked hard to change their bodies to become more physical. And they have spent much more time perfecting technique.
"Coach (Frank) Verducci is a technician," Harrison said. "He's always emphasizing technique, and he's been enforcing that on the offensive line. It actually will help throughout the games; it will help use less energy just because you place more emphasis on your technique."
Senior quarterback John Brantley, who has a lot riding on this offensive line, said he likes what he has seen in fall camp.
"I have a lot of confidence in my O-line," Brantley said. "I've been with them now for a couple of years. They are a close bunch, and I'm close to them. They are all fairly new to playing, but I think they're going to be hungry and ready to learn. I think they are going to do fine."
Antonya English can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her coverage at gators.tampabay.com.