- Jeff Barlis, College Football
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Consider Dante Fowler Jr., Florida's preseason All-SEC defensive end, an authority on the Gators' offensive tackles.
Fowler emerged as a sophomore in 2013 and rode a wave of offseason momentum into a dominating spring. Much of the credit, he says, goes to left tackle D.J. Humphries and right tackle Chaz Green, whom he calls two of the best linemen in the SEC.
"This spring, me, D.J. and Chaz, we really got each other better," he said. "We went at it. We just competed the whole spring. I feel like I’m a better player. I can feel it because of them helping me, and I know they can feel it the same way."
Confidence abounds as Florida heads into its preseason camp, which opened on Monday. And while the entire team is bolstered by a general return to good health after injuries devastated the roster last fall, the offensive line might be the unit most likely to rebound.
Three of the Gators' starters -- including both tackles -- missed significant time in 2013, and Fowler says it cost the team dearly.
"Chaz was having a great camp [in 2013]," Fowler said. "He just had that setback, and it was like a freakish accident, too.
"That happened, and then we had D.J. -- he’s kind of like the anchorman who leads everybody -- so when he went down, things kind of went down the drain from there."
Green missed the entire season with a torn labrum suffered in late August, while Humphries missed the final five games with a sprained MCL. Both positions were revolving doors, with Tyler Moore, Max Garcia, Trenton Brown and Kyle Koehne also seeing time at left or right tackle.
Florida tried seven starting combinations on the offensive line last season, and the effects were startling.
Never a great pass-blocking team in recent years, the Gators regressed in their bread-and-butter running game, too. After averaging 188 yards a game on the ground in 2012 to rank 39th in the nation, Florida fell to 87th last season with an average of 145.8 yards rushing.
Head coach Will Muschamp won't change his run-heavy philosophy on offense, so the return of his two best tackles is welcome news. During SEC media days, Muschamp noted that Humphries was maintaining his weight at 295 pounds after playing last season at 285.
With Green standing 6-foot-5 and 300 pounds, offensive coordinator Kurt Roper has a pair of upperclassmen bookend tackles to rely upon on the field and off. Green, in particular, stood out to Roper as a team leader in the offseason.
"He's every day," Roper said. "He's really impressive to me."
Despite missing all of the 2013 season, Green has shown improvement according to his teammates.
"He’s physical, he’s gotten bigger, he’s gotten stronger," senior defensive tackle Darious Cummings said. "It doesn’t seem like he had a year off because it doesn’t feel like he missed a step."
Green and Humphries were 100 percent for spring practice and proved to be among Florida's standout performers. Now Florida is hoping the two will carry over their improvement, confidence and good health into the fall.
"That’s a big deal, man," Humphries said. "Me and Chaz being back, that’s good. When we’re on the field together, it works well. We're going to try and keep it up. If both of us stay healthy, we can make some things happen."
451dAlex Scarborough and Greg Ostendorf