Disappearing Depth For Gators
GAINESVILLE - This is Jason Watkins' vision: "Get on the line and go straight downfield. Just block somebody. You don't have to worry about moving them around. Just knock them off the ball and run. And it would not matter who is carrying the ball, because the hole is so big anybody could run through it." The Florida Gators' hardworking senior offensive tackle from Lakeland can close his eyes and see it all. Too bad for the Gators they have not yet been able to feel it. Before Florida's season began a handful of weeks ago, it was easy to imagine Watkins as a visionary, his favorite play repeated like a top-40 tune on FM radio. Florida's offensive line appeared to be among the team's strongest units, equipped with size, muscle, experience and depth.Behind it stands a bevy of athletic, big-time playmakers managed by Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Tim Tebow and ready to run to open spaces. Now, the picture has grown fuzzy. "That's football," Florida coach Urban Meyer said. "Injuries and issues are things a team has to deal with." The depth is vanishing, and with it a significant amount of that size, muscle and experience. Senior left tackle Jim Tartt, an anchor of stability for the past two seasons, re-injured his left shoulder in last week's loss to Ole Miss and will likely play a limited number of snaps the remainder of the year. Tartt's backup, redshirt sophomore Marcus Gilbert, went down in the fourth quarter Saturday with a sprained ankle and is questionable for this week's game against Arkansas. Nor will redshirt sophomore Maurice Hurt (elbow) be able to step in, leaving redshirt sophomore Carl Johnson. Behind Johnson are redshirt freshman James Wilson and junior Ron Wilson. Meyer judges the situation as serious enough that he is considering pulling freshman David Young's redshirt and discussing moving freshman Matt Patchan from defensive tackle. Patchan signed as an offensive lineman out of Armwood High, but he moved to defense in the spring. Tartt's setback is the most distressing. "Having him next to me gives me extra comfort," senior left tackle Phil Trautwein said. But the 2007 second-team All-SEC performer who leads the team in career starts, is likely to be reduced to spot duty because of chronic shoulder problems that have required three operations on one and one on the other. "It's just wear-and-tear," Meyer said. "Poor guy, he's as tough a human being as there is, but he's had three surgeries on one shoulder. Jim's good for a week, and then he's off for a week. You just bleed for him because he's a warrior." After missing the season's first two games, Tartt returned with a strong performance against Tennessee, but he was injured again early against Ole Miss, suggesting his availability will be sporadic. "You hate to say that, but there is probably some truth to it," Meyer said, suggesting the loss is not necessarily in physical ability. "There's a big difference as far as leadership, experience, which is awful high in this league." That will test the resolve of a unit that prides itself on being one of the closest on the team. "We have really, really strong bonding," Watkins, a 6-foot-6, 310-pound family and community sciences major. "Most of the time, we find ourselves going out to eat together, hanging out together, all just to get ourselves closer. That's how we keep each other out of trouble. We are our brother's keeper. "And it's the same on the field. The group that is the offensive line is a total team effort. If one person messes up, it makes the whole line look bad." This is where any number of Florida fans will suggest that so far it has been the entire offense that has looked anything but stellar so far. Gators running backs have yet to establish themselves as a threat, and Tebow took three sacks against an all-out Ole Miss blitz last week. The team's offensive yardage is down considerably from last year. "Actually, we have been very efficient," Watkins said. "We're following the game plan. These days, teams are playing us different than they used to, so you are not going to see the high-powered offense like you used to. That's why we're going back to old-school and just grinding it out. That's what you are going to see most of the time." With eyes open.
Reporter Mick Elliott can be reached at (813) 281-2534 or [email protected]