GAINESVILLE — When Florida offensive coordinator Brent Pease called the Gators' offensive line "the strength of our team" four days after quarterback Jeff Driskel was sacked eight times in Game 2 against Texas A&M, he caused a few eyebrows to rise.
But now, with Florida (7-0) ranked No. 3, Pease's evaluation is starting to make sense. The unit that was manhandled last season as the Gators struggled with an offense ranked 73rd nationally in rushing (143.0) has turned into a steady, productive group that has matured and been reinvented under the tutelage of veteran line coach Tim Davis.
Heading into Saturday's Georgia game, Florida is gaining almost 70 yards more on the ground (212.71), in part because of the offensive line's improvement. The Gators' running game ranks third in the SEC.
"I think we're a unit that is a little more tied together," Florida coach Will Muschamp said. "There are two units that need to be the closest units on your football team; that's the offensive line and the secondary. Because generally, if they're not on the same page, it's not good for your football team. They have been that way, and I think our communication is much better because of that.
"But I think as much as anything we have some competitive guys. Going into last season, Xavier Nixon and Jon Halapio were the only guys that had played extensive snaps in the Southeastern Conference. So it was a pretty daunting task what those guys were trying to undertake in a new scheme and a new system. They're a year older, a year more mature, experienced, stronger."
The new-look O-line is still working on pass protection, having allowed 21 sacks, but part of that is having a first-year starter in Driskel who hasn't learned to get rid of the ball quickly. But the offensive line has held its own against some of the nation's toughest defensive fronts, including LSU and South Carolina, giving it a newfound confidence.
"I feel like we can do that against anybody, really," said Halapio, a St. Pete Catholic alum. "Just the way we practice, the way our mentality is this year. We're just really relentless, especially up front. Yeah, pretty much, we can wear down anybody. I feel pretty strong about that."
"Yes, we're going against some better athletes, but especially as an offensive line, we've come a far ways from last year," junior center Jonotthan Harrison said. "We're more meshed as a unit. We've been working this whole offseason for a situation like this."
Davis, who is in his first season with the Gators, has 29 years of coaching experience in college and the NFL. He has stressed technique and extremely physical play.
"I think you look at all the reasons why we've made a huge step forward, and Tim Davis has a huge part of that, as well," Muschamp said. "He's an outstanding football coach. He was a guy I worked with when I was with the Miami Dolphins. His track record speaks for himself when he was at Wisconsin and Southern Cal."
Davis is also credited with helping develop a young group of players quickly. When the Gators lost three offensive linemen to injury against Vanderbilt, they didn't miss a beat with the replacements.
"Coach Davis is a good coach," said offensive lineman Chaz Green, a Tampa Catholic alum. "He's really good with attention to detail. He's good at developing guys, so I think that they've made tremendous leaps from camp to now. Pretty much, it's all about us. We try to pride ourselves on sticking to the group. We know that we have to work as a unit. One guy can't do this, another guy do that. It's just unity and everybody working together."
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected]