GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Graduate assistant Dan Wenger can't really relate to what he sees every day while working with the Florida offensive linemen.
Especially when thinking back to when he was a Florida offensive lineman.
"I was brought in as a so-called 'super senior' that year," said Wenger, who spent five seasons at Notre Dame then transferred to UF in 2011 after being granted a sixth year of eligibility as a medical hardship. "My biggest thing is experience and having guys who played and been in tough situations when the game is on the line. We didn't really have that in my year here."
That 2011 Gators offense sorely lacked for numbers and continuity up front and the struggles spilled over in pass protection. Coach Will Muschamp and his staff, at the time in their first UF season, could only play the O-line hand they were dealt during what turned out to be a 7-6 season.
Times have changed in two years.
So have the numbers.
"I'd like to have 15 to 17 guys on scholarship at that position," Muschamp said of the offensive front. "We have 15 now."
And more than half could be called on to line up in Southeastern Conference play with the confidence of Muschamp, offensive coordinator Brent Pease and line coach Tim Davis.
That's a good place to be in this league.
"We're a deep offensive line. You [can] take seven or eight guys that could be starters anywhere in the country," UF defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin said of a unit that made its public debut Thursday night during the first of four preseason practices open to fans. "They've battled well with our D-linemen. They're making each other better."
The Gators O-line entered the preseason looking to replace two starters, left tackle Xavier Nixon and guard James Wilson, but also returned five players who combined for 45 starts last year, and welcomed transfers Max Garcia (Maryland) and Tyler Moore (Nebraska), who together added another 16 starts of BCS competition from their last eligible seasons.
"This is a championship-caliber offensive line," Garcia said. "You can see that already."
And that's without senior right guard and team captain Jon Halapio, who has yet to be cleared for contact since suffering a pectoral injury just before the start of camp. Halapio is taking part in select drills and hopes to be back in time for the Aug. 31 season opener at home against Toledo.
Against the Rockets, the offensive line could be sophomore D.J. Humphries at left tackle, Garcia at left guard, senior and returning 13-game starter Jon Harrison at center, Halapio at right guard and junior Chaz Green at right tackle.
Throw in Moore, who can play either guard or tackle spot, along with three more versatile guys in fifth-year senior Kyle Koehne, junior Ian Silberman and redshirt sophomore Trip Thurman, plus promising/massive 6-foot-8, 365-pound junior college transfer Trenton Brown, and the Gators would appear to have a well-stocked and deep pool up front to surround quarterback Jeff Driskel and make way for the running game.
"If we can stay healthy, we can be really good," Moore said.
Moore is a big reason the Gators have been able to withstand the the absence of Halapio and Thurman early in camp.
He signed with Nebraska out of Clearwater (Fla.) Countryside High and in 2011 merely became the first true freshman offensive lineman in school history to start a season opener for the Cornhuskers. Dave Rimington didn't do that. Neither did Dean Steinkuhler, Aaron Taylor or Will Shields.
At Lincoln, Neb., though, Moore found himself losing his passion for the game and chose to leave the team and return home. He was done with football; or so he thought.
"I never expected to play again, but then I started watching games and taking some visits," said Moore, who was taking classes at St. Pete College. "I gave myself some time and realized how much I loved it."
Moore enrolled at UF in January and last spring provided instant impact -- not to mention size (6-5, 315) -- to a line that also had welcomed Garcia (6-4, 307) the fall before.
Garcia, out of Norcross, Ga., opted to transfer from Maryland following a coaching change there, despite starting 12 games as a true sophomore left tackle. Garcia was sought by a slew of SEC schools before picking the Gators, who wanted him to play guard.
Swapping the glamor of protecting the quarterback's blindside for the grunt work of a guard was no problem for Garcia.
"No, it got me excited because I am a very physical player who loves to run block and hit people," he said. "You don't do that so much playing tackle. As a guard, you got to get down and dirty and be aggressive with a chip on your shoulder. It was an adjustment at first, having two people on each side of me, but I've learned to be aware of my space and I've embraced the transition."
His coaches and fellow linemen, meanwhile, have embraced the new-found depth and, with it, the options that present themselves.
"It's just really helpful to have such flexibility on the offensive line," said Harrison, who has started 27 of his 39 games at Florida. "A really stagnant offensive line, when players can only play a position, in my opinion, isn't really that productive. Because we have many guys who can play various positions it helps us progress as a unit."
That's big progress from a year ago.
And giant progress from the year before that.
"Now we have guys that understand what we're doing and are able to come in and not really miss a beat," Wenger said. "That's where you want and need to be; that's what building a program is about."