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Gators offensive line is standing strong

Sophomore Maurkice Pouncey, who moves from guard to starting center this season, says “I’m hoping to improve a lot.’’

BRIAN CASSELLA | Times

Sophomore Maurkice Pouncey, who moves from guard to starting center this season, says “I’m hoping to improve a lot.’’

This FAll ...

SERIES PLOT: Two years removed from winning it all, the Gators are trying to recapture that glory again. With a returning Heisman Trophy winner who may be in his final season of this series, veteran offensive talent and a schedule that plays in its favor, if ever there was a time to earn another ring, it's now.

NEW FACES: Florida has at least nine new players who seem poised to make an impact, including RBs Emmanuel Moody and Jeff Demps, CB Janoris Jenkins and WRs Frankie Hammond Jr. and Carl Moore, and DT Troy Epps.

WILL BE A HIT IF …: Florida can finally find a running game. Yes, the Gators won it all without one in 2006, and last season quarterback Tim Tebow's Heisman win was partly because he was both quarterback and star running back. Just a threat of one or two solid running backs on the field makes an already dominating offense much more difficult to stop.

Will be Canceled if …: Florida can't figure out a way to get a decent pass rushing-attack, doesn't find an impact DT and if the secondary hasn't learned to cover significantly better than it did last season.

GAINESVILLE

Think of Florida's 2008 offensive line as a group of character actors suddenly re-cast in a long-running hit television series.

On a team that includes leading man Tim Tebow, the Heisman Trophy winning quarterback, his superstar sidekick receiver Percy Harvin and numerous other A-listers in Gator uniforms, the O-line often gets lost in the scrolling credits.

But the days of basking in the glow of anonymity may be ending. If Florida coach Urban Meyer is right, the most underrated unit on the team is in reality "the strength" of this 2008 Gator show.

With four returning starters, including three fifth-year seniors, the Gator offensive line is preparing for its supporting role in what it hopes will be a No. 1 show at season's end.

"They aren't undervalued by the coaching staff," Meyer said. "We have five players, actually you could probably put seven guys out there that you feel very comfortable with. I remember at times at Florida, we had a hard time marching three or four of them out there, major league guys that could potentially play in the National Football League. Three seniors: Jason Watkins, Jim Tartt and Phil Trautwein … all very good leaders, all extremely hard workers. Then you mix in the Pouncey kids (Mike and Maurkice), you got a good group. Behind them you have Marcus Gilbert, Maurice Hurt and a couple other guys. That's without question the most under-publicized (unit). They're very good players."

With Tebow bidding for a repeat Heisman, and a renewed emphasis on establishing a solid running game, the O-line players have known for quite some time this attention was coming. They spent the summer fostering cohesiveness and unity, including social outings, dinners with girlfriends and any other excuse to be together.

"What makes us the strength of the team is we're totally accountable and we trust each other," said James Wilson, a redshirt freshman from St. Augustine. "We've been through everything together. This summer we worked out at 6:30 every morning. We worked out together on our own. We just really learned how to be accountable to each other and our assignments."

It is a "unique, completely fun group," offensive line coach Steve Addazio said.

That's putting it mildly. There is 6-foot-3, 315-pound Tartt, the fun-loving hunter from Sopchoppy with the dry wit and unofficial title of funniest man on the line. He has 29 career starts — the most on the team.

"We have a special bond and I think that's what makes us so much stronger than any other unit," Tartt said.

There are the Pouncey twins, the king of comedy runner-up duo to Tartt. Mike played defensive line last season after the Gators were decimated by injuries. He will play offensive line in college for the first time this week. His identical twin brother, Maurkice, started 11 of 13 games at right guard as a freshman last season, and is now the starting center.

"That changes a lot this season," Maurkice said. "I'm the center of the offensive line and everybody looks to me as the person who goes out there and leads everybody by example. So it does change a lot, but I'm hoping to improve a lot."

Hurt, the redshirt sophomore, emerged last season and played in eight games. And then there's Trautwein. The Vorhees, N.J., native suffered a season-ending stress fracture in his foot during preseason last year. Then last spring, he had surgery to remove bone spurs in that same foot, missing the spring. He will return after missing 15 months, with a newfound appreciation for the game and eager to prove himself again.

"I have that extra passion," he said. "I learned, just like that it could be taken from you."

Tartt and the other linemen realize as Florida's front goes, so goes the offense. A game of inches won in the trenches, they say. It's a responsibility they take seriously.

"We're not flashy, we don't need a lot of attention, but we know how important our jobs are," Tartt said. "And we believe we're the best at what we do."

Cue the spotlight.

Antonya English can be reached at english@sptimes.com.

Gators offensive line is standing strong 08/27/08 [Last modified: Thursday, August 28, 2008 9:26am]
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