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January 26, 2012

Parting Shots: Dan Wenger II


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After each season Inside the Gators talks to several of the top departing seniors and early entry juniors for an in-depth question and answer session we call Parting Shots.

Up first this year is senior offensive lineman Dan Wenger.

A member of the Florida Gators football team for less than a full year, Wenger has gone through plenty of ups and downs in his career as a college football player.

A four-star recruit and the No. 3 player at his position coming out of St. Thomas Aquinas High School in 2006, Wenger committed to Notre Dame and played there for four years before suffering a pair of concussions that forced him to miss what would have been his redshirt senior season.

When his school failed to clear him to play after the NCAA granted him a waiver to compete for a sixth year, he reached out to then-Florida offensive coordinator Charlie Weis and current Gators offensive line coach Frank Verducci, both of whom he was familiar with from Notre Dame.

With Florida badly in need of healthy bodies on the offensive line, and Weis and Verducci vouching for him and his concussion tests coming back clean, head coach Will Muschamp granted Wenger a spot on the Gators for 2011.

With his final collegiate season in the books, Wenger now has his sights set on the NFL. Though he knows it may be a long shot for a team to take a chance on him, he is doing whatever it takes to play in the league.

That began with playing in the first annual Battle of Florida game, a Senior Bowl-type event created to showcase players who either were born, lived or played in the state. Wenger started at center for the South team, which fell to the North 51-3 on Saturday.

InsidetheGators.com caught up with Wenger before the game to pick his brain about his time with the Gators, his NFL prospects and how he expects Florida to progress in the future.

Inside the Gators: Going into the bowl game there appeared to be two main motivations for the team: finishing the season above .500 and sticking it to Urban Meyer. Some guys were a bit vocal about this to the media but for the most part it was kind of it in the background. Which motivation do you think fueled the team more - avoiding the losing season or showing Meyer that Florida was still the better team?
Wenger: "For me that whole Urban Meyer thing wasn't an issue. I know guys that were upset about the situation and wanted to kind of prove their point - whether it be that they didn't want Urban to leave or they had something against him for leaving. Whatever the case may be that was never an issue for me. It was one of those things that's talked about in the locker room but it was a conversation I didn't get involved in. I had no experience playing under him. He recruited me but at the same time I didn't spend five years at Florida before Coach Muschamp came in. That was not even a thought in my head. As far as the whole losing season, I've been 6-6 going into a bowl game at Notre Dame - once we went to a bowl game and won and the other time we didn't go to a bowl game. There's something about going into a bowl game and winning and coming out at that 7-6 and ending with a winning season. That sparks the fire again and the drive and the energy to be better and work harder going into the offseason. When we were 6-6 at Notre Dame in 2009, we didn't go to a bowl game. Staying stagnant at 6-6, knowing that we couldn't do anything else about it was terrible. We felt deflated. It was only the second time I had a full winter break. It was something I wasn't used to and I didn't know what to do with myself with that time. I was used to watching film and getting ready to prepare and fight that fight one more time. To me, it's very important and I think that was mostly my motivation going into that game against Ohio State. To come out on top and more than anything I wanted to do whatever I could to help the other guys be ready and prepare them for the game."

Inside the Gators: Well I know it wasn't a motivation for you, but Meyer taking the Ohio State job before that bowl game had to be on the mind of a lot of the other players. Was it something they just brought up here and there or was it a topic that you heard plenty about and thought was a real motivator for the other players?
Wenger: "You could say there was all of that going on. It was on everyone's mind. Guys wanted to see if he was going to be there or on the sideline. It was very evident that it was going on in the locker room, all of that talk. A lot of those guys just had a point to prove. That's fine. Everyone is motivated by different things. Whatever gets you going and gets you ready to give your best effort in a game, by all means use it. It might not be what motivates me, but hell, if it motivates you then let's go into this game together both highly motivated and play to the best of our abilities."

Inside the Gators: Was it pretty clear to you and the other players the direction the offense was going in even though the unit as a whole simply did not perform up to its potential on the field?
Wenger: "Absolutely. What Coach Weis's system is - having played in it for five years now - it's a tough system to grasp, especially when you're in a coaching transition. That's a tough offense to not only teach, there is a lot of stuff going in with a short amount of time. It's not like these guys are freshmen coming into it. This is, 'Here's the playbook, let's hit the ground running.' Luckily for me, I was able to have four years of it before I joined the Gators. It really takes a good solid year to really get it under your belt and understand everything conceptually. A lot of times, in my experience at Notre Dame as a freshman, you're kind of just still in that high school mode of, 'Who do I block?' Eventually you see the whole picture of, 'What is everyone else doing on the field in this play and how does my job affect this play? How does getting my job done - or if I don't get my job done - affect the play?' Obviously as the year goes on you get better and more comfortable with it. We had a lot of young guys on the offensive line. That's just going to be a plus for the future. They have that under their belts, and they're going to be able to play in the system for two or three years and feel comfortable with it and know it inside and out. At the same time, they can help the younger guys so when it is their time to contribute and play, they're not being left out and left behind."

Inside the Gators: What specifically are you working on or trying to showcase between now and the NFL Combine in hopes of getting the attention scouts and general managers?
Wenger: "Just that, even through all of the medical stuff and the situation at Notre Dame, that I can still play and that I'm healthy and that I love this game. I was interviewed earlier, and they asked me the same type of question. I just want an opportunity like Coach Muschamp gave me to come down there and show him and the other coaches at Florida that I could play. That's my main goal: To show them that I can still play and that I'm physically back to normal and healthy. And I'm just looking for an opportunity."

Inside the Gators: From that standpoint, what exactly can you do to prove to them that you're healthy aside from take and pass medical tests?
Wenger: "It's a lot of getting that clean bill of health. If I get called to go to any workouts, I'm going to be evaluated. They're probably going to do a number of tests that I've already been through. But at the same time, when all of the issues happened at Notre Dame, I went and saw an independent neurologist. He cleared me and said I was ready to go. I felt I was ready at the halfway point in the [2010] season, and we had already started getting the sixth year application stuff ready. We were hoping to get that, which we did. When I came down here and in the transfer process to UF, I went through another round of extensive testing on my official visit down there. The second day was about seven hours of different concussion tests. I passed all of them with flying colors, and I even had to drive myself back to UF to talk to the trainers there. Through that process, they were just saying that they were looking for some type of red flag so they couldn't clear me, and they couldn't find anything. All of that is documented. With my agent, we are putting together all my medical stuff so he can send it out and say, 'Hey, this guy has done all the testing for the concussion and we haven't found any problem.' I also came down to the SEC and started 11 games. That should speak for something in just showing how healthy I am."

Inside the Gators: Obviously you just wanted to a chance to play and certainly did not expect you were going to start right away when you came down to Florida. As it turns out, you would have played or started every game if you did not injure your foot in the later part of the year. What exactly was that injury and how is that doing?
Wenger: "Yeah. I had a turf toe. I played a little bit in the FSU game but not after. The reason why I didn't play in the bowl game, in speaking with Coach Verducci and everyone, is that [with] the turf toe injury I wasn't going to be nearly at 100 percent and be able to play my best football and give us at UF the best chance of winning. I know that and understand [the decision]. I really wanted to be out there, and I really wanted to be playing to do whatever I could to help us win. Talking with Coach Verducci and everyone else, it just wasn't ready yet. The extra time of rest, it has gotten back to where it should be and it is not as bothersome. I wish it had felt this good going into the bowl game."

Inside the Gators: Verducci and Weis have been around a lot of talented offensive linemen and both have known you for a while, so I doubt they would sugar coat things for you. What have they told you in regards to your progression as a player and prospects of making it in the NFL?
Wenger: "Everyone I have spoken to - I've spoken to Coach Muschamp, I've spoken to Coach Verducci, and I've spoken to my agent. We know, between my agent and I, that we're probably looking at free agency. Coach Verducci and Coach Muschamp basically said the same thing. Coach Muschamp and Coach Verducci said the biggest hurdle that I'm going to have to get over is the medical [questions]. A lot of teams could or will write me off medically or won't clear me medically. There is that slim chance that I still might get picked up and be able to show someone that I can still play and I'm healthy and ready to go."

Inside the Gators: Florida clearing you for this past season and you continuing to fight and push to keep playing should be a positive note for you in those interviews though.
Wenger: "When Notre Dame didn't clear me, that wasn't going to discourage me from not giving it shot and not playing another year of college. I'm still here fighting. It's an uphill battle, and I know that and I understand that. I'm not going out without a fight."

Inside the Gators: What are your plans as far as training after the Battle of Florida game?
Wenger: "I'll be training down here in South Florida. I wanted to train up there at UF with Coach [Jeff] Dillman but that whole situation is a little dicey to go up there and train. The last thing I want to do is get in the way of them starting their new workout regimen and them getting acclimated to a new strength coach. I've been in that position of coaching transition and everything else. I know how tough it is just on a program itself. The last thing that a new strength coach has to worry about is, 'OK well I got to get this guy ready.' It's just one of those things that I really wanted to be up there and really wanted to be helping guys, but it is in my best interest to be down here and get the best out of my training and everything else. As soon as Pro Day is over, I'm going to stay up there and I'm going to work out and I'm going to help the guys still there playing however I can as far as with the offensive system and anything else. If they want to watch film they can grab me and ask questions and do whatever. I will be there for them no matter what."

Inside the Gators: Just to clarify, the Gators gave you an offer to go to Gainesville and train but you're choosing not to do so?
Wenger: "I spoke with Coach Dillman and he said he could help me when he could. It's just kind of the situation where I felt the best for me was going to be down here just getting the individual time and having someone who's not going to have to worry about his number one priority, which is the team. I need somebody to worry about their number one priority - me. I'm not saying that in a bad way, and I completely understand how college football works. I've been in it for six years and seen a lot and understand that. I'm completely, 100 percent for that. They're heading in a new direction with their strength and conditioning staff. Those guys have to get acclimated to it. With changes going on there, things may be a little hectic as far as getting organized. I'm just hoping for the best for them and hoping that all the guys respond very well to it. I think they will. Coach Dillman seems like a great coach from speaking with him. Honestly Coach Muschamp wouldn't hire him if he wasn't."

Inside the Gators: Has Florida told you when Pro Day is going to take place?
Wenger: "I don't know yet. When I was leaving there, I was asking around. With everyone new coming in, they were a little bit iffy on that as far as when that was going to be. I should hopefully find out here within the next couple of weeks."

Inside the Gators: Obviously you were only at Florida for one season but looking back on the last few months, what is the one moment either on or off the field you will always remember when you think about the Gators?
Wenger: "The whole transfer process was with me wondering if it was going to go through and if I was going to get cleared. I remember I was just getting home from working out in the afternoon. Literally right as I got out of the shower, I got the phone call from Coach Muschamp. That's going to be the biggest thing that I remember. Without him giving me this opportunity, giving me this chance... Coach Weis and Coach Verducci were a big part of that as well, giving Coach Muschamp reason to come and take me and bring me down as part of the Gators. Obviously it's ultimately his decision. Being able to have that opportunity, that's going to be the biggest thing for me. Obviously there are going to be some big games and the ups and the downs that I'll always remember, but being able to have that opportunity made me feel so blessed. I couldn't be happier and couldn't be more thankful to Coach Muschamp for having given me this opportunity. I'm just so thankful for Coach Muschamp like I said giving me the opportunity. Hopefully someway and somehow I will be able to help him out and repay him back and just show him how thankful I was for this opportunity."

Inside the Gators: You ended your college career playing for two of the premier football teams in the country in Notre Dame and Florida. From either a broad or specific perspective, even though you spent more time at Notre Dame, what do you see as the major similarities and differences between the two programs?
Wenger: "It's tough to say because a lot of the ways the Notre Dame program was ran was very similar to how Florida was run. I think Coach Weis had a heavy impact on that offensively. I kind of knew what to expect with him on staff and what to expect at practice and how we were going to handle things within the program. When Coach [Brian] Kelly came in, it was kind of one of those deals where he was bringing in a lot of his style and philosophy. It felt like some of the tradition was taken away from the program. As far as Coach Muschamp coming in, it was really one of those things where he wanted to make sure that we knew the history of Florida and we fed off of that. I think that's an important thing because alumni should always be welcomed back. Whether you played 4-5 years or one year, if you were a major contributor or walk-on, guys who came before you built the program. It's not something that's built overnight. It's something that's built years and years in advance. That's what makes the Notre Dames and the Floridas a special place. Even though I spent just a year at Florida, Florida is going to be as special to me as Notre Dame was spending five years there."

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