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Gators offensive line tries to block criticism

Injuries and inexperience lead to poor rushing totals and 15 sacks allowed.

By ANTONYA ENGLISH, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 30, 2002

Injuries and inexperience lead to poor rushing totals and 15 sacks allowed.

GAINESVILLE -- Under normal circumstances, this isn't the way Joe Wickline would run his offensive line.

Switching players in and out of the lineup multiple times. Guys playing three positions on three consecutive plays in one series. Rotating players in revolving-door style.

But injuries, inexperience and a new coaching staff and scheme have made the Florida offensive line one of the most visible trouble spots on a team that has struggled to find its way this season.

"I'm sure it's something that everybody across the country has to deal with at one point or another," junior guard Shannon Snell said. "This just happens to be our year. We're still trying to get guys ready."

Entering the ninth game of the season, it continues to be a work in progress.

"I'm not alternating people or switching guys just to see if a certain chemistry would come to," said Wickline, the Florida offensive line coach. "I'm simply trying to get five workable bodies on the field at one given time. And I think people misunderstand (thinking) maybe I'm over here experimenting. It's too late for that. We experiment during two-a-days and we experiment in the spring. But we're trying to win a ballgame. We're just trying to get a good combination on the field.

"The biggest thing is we have a situation here where we've had some guys injured and some guys that have missed some practice and they aren't at 100 percent. But the challenge is to make sure you have five on the field by the time the ball snaps."

It has been quite a challenge.

Snell has been hampered by a shoulder injury after missing the LSU game. Freshman Mike Degory has battled back problems all season as he alternates between center and right guard. Senior guard/center David Jorgensen threatened to quit this season because of a lack of playing time. Guard Mo Mitchell left the team for nearly two weeks for personal reasons but has since returned to the lineup. Randy Hand is a true freshman and Jonathon Colon is a first-year starter.

"The ideal is to have two deep at every position and they get all the reps or the same number of reps, there is no separation between your first group or second group and you don't have to cross-train or switch," Wickline said. "But when you have a numbers problem in regards to guys that have themselves ready to deliver on each and every play, then you have to be a little creative."

An indication of the line's troubles? The running game.

Florida's rushing offense is ranked No.72 in the nation, averaging 135 yards per game. Running back Earnest Graham averaged 7.4 yards per carry in the first three games but is averaging 3.15 yards in SEC play.

"We have yet to find a consistent starting line, but that all has to do with the different techniques and the different coaches," Colon said. "Every coach brings in new techniques so everything is hard to adjust to, but even with all the guys rotating, we haven't done badly at all because we're all pretty good linemen. Half the season we've had injuries too; it's not just the new stuff."

And then there's the passing game.

Quarterback Rex Grossman has been sacked 15 times for a loss of 117 yards. And he has spent a good deal of time running for his life.

"I said it before the Miami game that if Rex Grossman is still here three weeks after this, he's the toughest guy I know because he got cracked every single play against Miami," ESPN analyst Lee Corso said. "They just ate him up alive. To me, it's (Grossman's troubles are) all protection. And he's been hit so many times I'm still predicting that he will not last the season. I don't care what anybody tells you, he won't last. He's tough, but he ain't that tough."

Grossman has been banged around. He sprained his right knee three weeks ago and has been wearing a heavy brace to protect it. But he and coach Ron Zook disagree with Corso. They think the line has improved each game.

"I think our offensive line has made some great strides and I think the Auburn game was probably the best game that we've played to date," Zook said. "What Joe has done in terms of not having a lot of depth, but playing people at different positions and adding depth that way is starting to help us."

Added Grossman: "They are getting better, we all are in all aspects of the game. That's a positive."

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