GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Mike Summers coaches Florida’s offensive line, but he has no business playing the position at his age.
Unfortunately for Summers, who turns 60 in June, he had to serve as a stationary sub last spring when UF could only field six scholarship linemen.
With 13 bodies on the roster now, Summers just has to worry about coaching this spring.
“Feels really good because I don’t have to jump in there and be one of the guys in the drill to fill it out,” Summers said. “It’s getting really hard for me to get down in there on the 3-techniques, so certainly the numbers have made a difference.”
Summers isn’t the only one embracing the added numbers. For the linemen who were healthy in the spring of 2015, practice was a gift and a curse. More reps improved the players and built stamina, but it was also exhausting.
“We had a high-tempo practice, drill to drill to drill,” offensive tackle David Sharpe recalled. “We’re jogging every drill, going fast, getting a lot of reps. It was tiring, but I don’t believe it hurt us. I think it got us better. It got us in shape and more conditioned.”
Sharpe was one of three linemen practicing last spring who ended up starting for the Gators that fall, along with center Cam Dillard and offensive guard Antonio Riles. It was an up-and-down season for Florida’s offensive line, which had strong showings in some games but struggled with consistency because of inexperience and lack of depth.
“You go into a bowl game and you start three true freshmen on the offensive front,” offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier said. “I don’t know many teams that do that in this league and play against a quality opponent like Michigan. It’s hard to do. But that’s special when those guys play at that age. You don’t see that every day.”
Offensive tackle Fred Johnson and guards Martez Ivey and Tyler Jordan received significant snaps as freshmen, playing in 34 combined games with 13 total starts. In his 36-year coaching career, Summers said he had never started three freshmen on the offensive line prior to January’s Citrus Bowl.
But now, all three will join Sharpe as full-time starters this year.
“I learned I really don’t want to be in that position,” Summers said. “It’s difficult when you are so used to having guys you can count on. Certainly the group that walked out of here the year before were all experienced guys (five starters, four of them 2015 draft picks). There was going to be some drop-off.
“Now that we’ve gone through it, I actually was encouraged with some things that happened last year and saw those guys come together as a group. I know that will do nothing but help us as we go forward.”
The Gators are deeper at multiple positions this year, but the biggest boon to the team will be the offensive line.
“It has made our whole team able to practice differently,” Summers said. “We can separate drills now and work with our twos and threes at all the other positions because we have an offensive line to go with that group.”
Florida coach Jim McElwain said the inability to do that last spring hurt the development of the defensive line and limited how much work the offense could do as it installed a new system.
“Normally we would have two groups and team-type drills going together. Last year we couldn’t,” McElwain said. “That hindered the D-line a little bit in what they were able to get accomplished. We had to do some (skeleton drills) just to make up for those. So that’s been a really good part I think is having those bodies there and guys competing and really helping our D-line as well.”
Dillard and Riles will continue competing in preseason camp. Three redshirt freshmen — center T.J. McCoy and guards Nick Buchanan and Brandon Sandifer — are challenging Dillard and Riles for playing time.
Though he’s having to fight for his job, Dillard isn’t upset about the additional bodies at his position.
“I tell you what, it beats the six people from last year,” he said. “Golly. It’s a lot better. We have guys that are ready to play and ready to learn. … We’re way ahead of where we were last year at this time.”
The O-line issues at UF kept the Gators from having a traditional spring game the past two years and has been a source of Florida’s offensive woes in recent seasons. Riles is ready for that to change in 2016.
“Last year, we had to learn the offense and we had walk-ons on the second string. But now, we’re kind of tied in,” he said. “We’re the defending East champions and we’ve got to hold a standard to that. We know last year that we were the primary position to blame, so we’ve just got to step up and make that happen.”