Not too long ago, Dan Wenger had no idea what he was going to do. He had options, but they were very limited. Told he couldn’t play football at Notre Dame anymore because of medical issues involving concussions, Wenger was not ready to give up football just yet. It was his life.
“It was extremely tough,” Wenger told the media this week as a member of Florida’s football team. “It is one of those things where I had been working for this since I was a freshman in high school. It was heartbreaking and devastating to get that news. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. I was in between working out for pro day and looking for another place to play. When this opportunity opened up it was a no-brainer to come down here and give it one last go.”
Looking back, there may not have been a better thing that could have happened to Wenger. He is in a place not only that he can play, but a place where the people really want him.
Wenger played in 29 games at Notre Dame.
Florida head coach Will Muschamp is in his first year at the Gators’ helm and he brought along with him offensive coordinator Charlie Weis and offensive line coach Frank Verducci. The latter two coached Wenger at Notre Dame before a year off hiatus in the NFL.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” Wenger told Fightin’ Gators shortly after the Gators second win of the season. “This has been a perfect way to have this great opportunity. The guys are great, the coaches are awesome and I can’t thank Coach Muschamp, Coach Weis, and Coach Verducci enough for bringing me down here and giving me this opportunity. The guys have been very open to bringing me in and making me one of their own. It is just amazing. I just can’t say enough… this team is awesome.”
The offensive line at Florida is a unit made of a ton of youth and inexperience. With a new offensive system, the young line was considerably farther behind this past spring than anyone wanted them to be.
Wenger made his appearance on campus at Florida in May, and the youthful linemen embraced their elder who was willing to take the role of mentor for the guys. From the beginning, they looked up to Wenger who could teach them a thing or two about an offense he played for four years in and started for two.
“The summer was the biggest thing,” Wenger said. “Once we kind of got out there and started doing some work, I was helping them and coaching them up on some things and some minor details and how Coach Weis and Coach Verducci want things done. Everyone listened and took my advice and coaching and we were able to make great strides this summer.”
Had he not been able to suit up at Florida and play, Wenger thought things would have been just fine anyway. He was in a place where he felt needed and he was going to do his best with his situation.
“For me there wasn’t,” he answered when asked if he ever worried about getting on the field again. “Whatever my role was on the team I knew I was going to accept it and embrace it and help anyone that wanted help with this offense. I have been at it for five years and the first time you are in it, your head just spins. I knew that I knew it well enough that I could explain it to them, help them, and just kind of slow it down so that we would be on a better level when we were going into camp.”
Wenger expected a little more resistance to him from his fellow linemen, not knowing how they would feel about an ‘outsider’ coming in and trying to make his mark on the program. He was pleasantly surprised just how smooth things went.
“It was tough at first,” he said. “In my mind I thought it was going to be really tough. But when I came in they were very welcoming to letting me in and having me a part of the unit. (Jonotthan) Harrison, (Jon) Halapio, (Matt) Patchan, (Sam) Robey, everyone across the board were really taking my advice because I was in the offense for four years before this. They took a lot of the advice I gave them and little tips so that we had a better understanding of the offense as a unit. We had a better understanding going into camp.”
Weis certainly knew what he was doing trying to lure Wenger to Florida after he was given his full release from Notre Dame. Florida’s offensive guru may not have been sure that Wenger could ever play for Florida, but he knew having the young man around could only be beneficial to his offense.
"If he couldn't have played a down, he would've still helped us tremendously,” Weis said this week of Wenger. “He knows the offense better than all the rest of them. When you're in the offense for multiple years, starting at center and I believe both guards for me, he's got a very high football IQ. His intangibles are through the roof."
Those intangibles and the wisdom that comes with age also allowed him to take things a step further in terms of this line. One of the major terms you hear about offensive line play is cohesion. That cohesion starts off the field before it ever gets to the field.
During the summer, Wenger convinced all of the linemen to have a midnight lifting session and inevitably a bonding moment for the group. The elder lineman added a twist to the idea and had the group show up dressed as their favorite wrestler.
Shortly afterward, a picture taken in the weight room of the entire offensive line unit dressed as Hulk Hogan, the Undertaker, and the rest of your favorite wrestling heroes was flying around the Internet. Every offensive lineman was in the picture.
“That was kind of my idea to have everyone dress up as wrestlers,” he said laughing with the media that had no idea until he said it. “I think that was one major point in the summer where we all kind of came together since everyone really participated in it and went all out for it.”
The Inevitable First Hit
Wenger was evidently a natural as a mentor and getting the younger guys to follow his lead. As a teacher he felt like he had done a great deal for this team already, even before the fall started.
But, there is a personal side to all of this for Wenger. Call it selfish if you will, but Wenger wanted his shot on the field and quite frankly just wanted to still play football. However, there was still a question about his health. Would he be able to line up opposite a ferocious defender and absorb the pounding like he once was able to?
“Definitely in two-a-days when we started hitting and put on pads,” Wenger started about when he knew he was going to be able to get back after it. “That was the true test.
“It was just going to be a test at the beginning to see where I was at and if I was going to be able to take hits again. After I got into camp and got the all clear it was a no-brainer from there.”
He knew he found a home he could call his own from that point on, a home that would allow him to help the young guys like he wanted to, and also play some more football.
“This couldn’t be a better situation for me now,” Wenger said. “With everything I have dealt with in the past and especially the situation I had last year, being able to be a part of the Florida program and the Gator family has been amazing and I couldn’t be happier to be a part of a great team with great coaches.”
The Games Begin
A little over a week left in fall camp and suddenly there were some changes on the offensive line that were being announced. Guys that were listed as starters through the spring and first couple of weeks of fall were all of a sudden being challenged by others.
Wenger, was one of those making a move to the head of the line. He did so with a little more than a week before the first game. He was going to start for the Florida Gators in his first game as a player. Getting the nod had him anxious and brought back memories.
“I was a little nervous, obviously from having a year off,” he said. “That was kind of the biggest thing. I was just trying to get rid of those first game jitters. Coming in here this summer and then getting my first start. It almost made me feel like a freshman and a first time player again stepping out on the field. I really had to calm myself down. I just had to realize that I had been there before and that it was just a new venue.”
Still a leader of the boys up front, Wenger thinks his unit can be one that can really make some noise in 2011.
“I think we are doing pretty good and heading in the right direction,” he said. “That is why we have a couple of practices to do before each game… we watch the film and correct it. We watch the film and try and keep on growing before each game.”
It is a whole different ball game at Florida than he was used to even at a program like Notre Dame.
“This group’s level definitely rates high,” he said of his fellow linemen. “The athletes that our line has are unbelievable. When I came down here and saw it first hand, the first thing that crossed my mind was that these guys were freaks. They do some things that I haven’t seen before and have a lot of athletic ability that I have never had a chance to play with. It has been amazing to be a part of this group of linemen and I couldn’t ask to play with a better group of guys.”
Speaking of freaks, Wenger was asked about the human highlight reel, Chris Rainey, and just what he thought of the gators leading rusher and magician in cleats.
“It is just amazing,” Wenger said shaking his head in disbelief. “It is a lot of fun blocking for him. I am absolutely blessed to have this opportunity and have this much talent around me and playing with them.
Rainey made an impression on Wenger six years ago.
“You just never know what is going to happen. You always have to make sure you are chasing the ball and make sure you are chasing down the ball to let him score or get a couple of more yards.”
Wenger got to witness Rainey well before he became teammates and even before the two even went to college.
“The first time I saw (his ability) was my junior year in high school when we played them in the state championship,” Wenger said. “I was very impressed and it is just awesome having him as a teammate and being able to block for him.”
Wenger also has an understanding of just how his fellow linemen are trained to be ‘freaks’. They have to go up against comparably the best defensive linemen in the country every day in practice.
“As a student of the game you can tell the caliber of athletes the SEC has, especially being a part of it and seeing it firsthand it is really eye opening,” Wenger said. “If you understand and know football you understand the caliber of athletes the SEC has.
“With our (defensive) guys, it is a lot different than the guys we had at Notre Dame. With all that speed and quickness and all that strength, it all adds up. I can only imagine that every school in the SEC is going to be the same way.
In all the games (29) and practices he was involved in at Notre Dame, Wenger says the only comparison he can remember to the caliber of athlete he faces at Florida every day was one particular contest. “Probably USC in ’08,” he said.
Now, he knows he will have to meet similar athletes on the field of play in the SEC. but he has no idea what this whole conference rivalry thing is all about.
“Not much,” he said when asked if he understood yet what it meant to beat Tennessee.” “Everything is kind of new to me. I am just trying to do the right things with how the program is being run. I am sure I will be filled in on it this week.”
“I am very psyched up,” he said. “It is the first time I am playing in a true conference. All the games we played at Notre Dame mattered just as much as any conference game, but there is a different feeling now. I am embracing the rivalries and ready to go and be a part of this.”
The conference season is here and as much as we have no idea how this 2011 version of the Gator football team will finish the year, there is something for certain we do know. The play of the offensive line and the entire offense will be better for the mentoring that a senior transfer from Notre Dame has done since his arrival on campus in May. That mentor seemingly also has a lot of football in him, including possibly at the next level.
“I’m not worried about that now. I am just worried about the task at hand and taking it one game at a time.”
Spoken like a guy that has been there before.