GAINESVILLE — The suggestion came completely out of leftfield.
When Florida football coach Will Muschamp summoned Chris Johnson to his office this year, Johnson assumed it was to talk about ways to improve his play at linebacker. Turns out, Muschamp had a suggestion that would change Johnson's fortunes with the Gators: move to running back, where there was a significant need and the staff thought he might have a more immediate impact.
"It was shocking at first," Johnson said. "But at the same time, I'm an athlete and I just want to play football and be on the field. Whatever would get me on the field quicker, I just had to go with it. I took it as a compliment that they thought I could move over and play offense. But I didn't see it coming at all."
Johnson began adjusting in the spring, and is now among a large group of players vying for significant playing time at a position that last season relied heavily on just two players.
Senior Mike Gillislee, the leading returner (328 yards), has solidified the starting job. On his heels are freshman Matt Jones (Armwood), Trey Burton, Omarius Hines (who will also play wide receiver), Mack Brown and fullback Hunter Joyer (Wesley Chapel/Tampa Catholic). In an offense with that will feature multiple shifts and motions, and require a solid running game, Muschamp and offensive coordinator Brent Pease said having so many talented backs is a welcome advantage.
"We've got good running backs so we've got to use them," Pease said. "… Last year I know they were balanced, stretch-oriented, but we're going to be a downhill run game."
The Gators had hoped to be a much better running team last season, but their offensive line struggled. Florida was eighth in the SEC in run offense (143.0 yards per game).
"Just consistency, as much as anything, in being able to run the football," Muschamp said when asked what he needs most from the O-line. "We became too one-dimensional last year. Any time in this league that you've been that way, you're going to struggle. You can't survive week-in, week-out. Being able to run the ball and a little more creative in some of the things we've done in the run game."
Teammates say the offensive linemen have shown vast improvement.
"They are doing a good job, really good job," defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd said. "They are understanding defenses, they are understanding why they have to block a certain way and where the slide protection goes. So I think we're all a lot mentally stronger."
Whoever wins the quarterback job — Jacoby Brissett or Jeff Driskel — also needs the line to pass protect much better. The Gators were No. 5 in the league in passing offense (185.7 yards per game), and former quarterback John Brantley was often injured or running for his life.
"That was one of the things that we struggled with last year, pass protection," junior right guard Jon Halapio said. "It was basically (not understanding) calls, and just studying the defenses. I feel like with (new line coach Tim) Davis this year, he's been stressing that a lot — looking at safety rotations and different aligning of the gaps of down linemen, and just different looks of the linebackers."
The offensive linemen say that better offseason training, the addition of Davis and a new attitude will yield better results.
"We know that what we put out last year isn't the University of Florida," center Jonotthan Harrison said. "And this season, we have to change that. So we've been working hard the whole offseason to change this season around."
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected]