O-Line Back to Full Strength

Marcus Gilbert

Steve Addazio was more excited for Tuesday's practice than usual. It wasn't because of the usual Bloody Tuesday practice that his team would be participating in. This was the first practice since the beginning of fall camp that his offensive line was back in tact the way he expected.

Xavier Nixon returned to practice last week and saw the field Saturday as an attached tight end. Addazio eased him into playing time to let the sophomore get readjusted. The limitations on Nixon are now gone.

Addazio expects Nixon to return to left tackle this weekend at Tennessee. Marcus Gilbert will slide from left to right tackle, and Maurice Hurt will slide inside from right tackle to right guard.

It took two games of a patchwork offensive line, but players are finally in the positions Addazio imagined before camp started.

"Today could be the first day we're back to the original lineup we had on day one or two," Addazio said before Tuesday's practice. "Before that, it went away."

The offensive line struggled at times during the first two weeks, but the lack of continuity created issues. The lineman that has drawn the most praise from the Florida coaches is Marcus Gilbert. Addazio described his play as "unbelievable," but it wasn't always that way.

Head coach Urban Meyer said Monday that Gilbert almost got kicked out of the program early in his career because he wasn't accountable on or off the field. His relationship with Addazio forced him to develop.

"Marcus had some immaturity early in his career, but he's really grown up," Addazio said. "His maturity as a player and a person has really grown. He's becoming one of the finest linemen in America. He's playing at that kind of level."

Gilbert is a classic example of a player who took a while to develop. He was the least heralded of a trio of St. Thomas Aquinas linemen in the 2006 recruiting class. Sam Young and Dan Wenger stole all the headlines, but Gilbert has been the most productive at the college level.

"Some guys handle coming to college different," Addazio said. "I see it all the time with different guys and different personalities. Some guys click earlier than you thought they might have, and other guys take longer than you thought they might have. At the end of the day, it's where they get. You see the development along the way."

The veteran offensive line allows the Gators to lean on their run game. Florida can milk the clock and trust their veteran running backs to grind out the clock while still moving the chains.

A dominant run game also opens up the secondary for John Brantley to throw the ball. Meyer commented Monday that Brantley needs to be a 200-plus yard quarterback, and he hasn't done that in two starts.

"If you establish a dominant run game, the play action game becomes dominant," Addazio said. "They start loading the box to start the run, then play action opportunities. There's an extra guy in the box, and there are voided zones. You can't have it both ways on defense."

The knock on the Florida offense hasn't been the lack of passing yards. Two slow starts have almost cost the Gators both games early in the season, and they can't risk another one in Knoxville this weekend.

For Addazio, the slow starts come down to feeling out the defense to see what they are running. The coaches make adjustments, and those have yielded the increased production in the second half of both games.

"Obviously you want to come out of the gates strong," Addazio said. "In the same breath, there are ebbs and flows in a football game, and it's managing those that are even more important. In a perfect world, what would be better than driving down and scoring on your first drive? That's just not reality all the time."

The strong second half Florida put together Saturday is what they're hoping will carry momentum into this weekend. It isn't just a one-time occurrence, though. Throughout offseason workouts, the Florida players have fourth quarter excellence pounded into their heads by strength and conditioning coach Mickey Marotti. He preaches late-game dominance, and the Gators have produced in those situations this year.

"Our whole program is about standing strong in the fourth quarter," Addazio said. "It's always a significant part of what we're doing. We believe we're in shape and strong. In the fourth quarter, when it's really hard, we're going to put our hands down on more time."
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