GAINESVILLE — Mike Pouncey began his transformation from the less-talkative half of Florida's identical twin offensive line duo to undisputed team leader the moment the clock ran out on the Gators' Sugar Bowl victory in January.
He knew the Gators were about to be a team in transition, losing a starting quarterback and seven defensive starters. They would need somebody to hold the ship steady, and he was going to be that person.
"I knew when I decided to come back to school that I was going to have to take on that role, with (Tim) Tebow and (Brandon) Spikes leaving," Pouncey said. "I just accepted it, and I am taking it on with a full head of steam. I love this program, and I love all my teammates. Us being so young, I think all of them look up to me. It's just a blessing to be in the situation I am right now. It's a lot of responsibility. … And me being an offensive leader, we've got to lead this team back to Atlanta (SEC title game); that's our biggest goal."
Much of the preseason talk has been about John Brantley taking over for Tebow and UF filling the void left by so many defensive departures. But one of the most important aspects of this team might be its veteran offensive line.
Florida's returning linemen have a combined 87 career starts, led by Pouncey's 32. Pouncey, Marcus Gilbert, Carl Johnson and Xavier Nixon are returning starters, and Maurice Hurt, Matt Patchan and James Wilson all have significant playing time.
"That's a huge factor," said Johnson, a senior. "When you've played together as long as me, Marcus, Mike and Maurice Hurt have, you don't have to communicate as much. We know the system, we know the program, we know the blocking schemes, we know the calls. So Mike can just point at someone and all four of us are thinking the same thing. So I think that's huge. That's one of the biggest attributes we have."
Veteran leadership and the ability to adjust on the fly have become necessary in fall camp. Injuries have sidelined players, kept coaches from evaluating full units and hampered cohesiveness. Redshirt sophomore Patchan has missed most of camp with a fractured right wrist, and sophomore Nixon injured his knee this week. He had minor surgery and is out at least a few weeks.
"We still haven't figured out who our starting five is," Pouncey said. "We're going to figure that out this week. … I might have to play tackle the first couple of games. We'll see. We still don't know."
For now, they are rotating. And rotating some more. When Pouncey isn't at center, redshirt sophomore Sam Robey is. Gilbert is left tackle. Johnson is left guard, but with former Armwood High standout Patchan and Nixon out, the Gators lack a third left tackle. Wilson and Hurt are primarily at right guard. Nick Alajajian and former St. Petersburg Catholic standout Jon Halapio are competing for playing time.
Yet nothing is set in stone. Offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Steve Addazio says the combination of veterans and young players along with the versatility will be a positive.
"You've got a strong offensive line, and you've got a line that can handle multiplicity in defensive fronts and looks," Addazio said. "That gives you a lot of flexibility. When you've got a young offensive line on top of everything else, that can be really taxing to you. We've got a really strong one, and the beautiful thing about it is we've got a bunch young guys behind that have been here a year that are very talented and are very good players. … That in itself is going to present issues because they're going to want to be on the field as much as possible. That's a good thing, though."
When he decided to return for his senior season, Pouncey made it clear that part of his decision rested on moving to center, where he hopes to become better than brother Maurkice, the 2009 Outland Trophy winner. Now with so much uncertainty 10 days before the season opener, Pouncey's position might change, but his faith in his fellow linemen remains unshaken.
"We've been playing here for four years, all of us," Pouncey said. "And we've just got too much trust in each other (to fail). We're just going to go out there and play and show everybody what we can do week in and week out."
Antonya English can be reached at email@example.com.