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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.
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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: The way you came into the program was unique. Not only did you join a very young unit, but you happened to be the most experienced player based on the years you spent in the system at Notre Dame. As it turned out, your teammates looked to you in many ways as a leader and a teacher even though you were one of the team's newest players. How strange was that situation for you?
Dan Wenger: "Yeah. It wasn't necessarily uncomfortable, but it was something that I didn't expect. I didn't expect the guys would respond so well to me. The reason for that is you see guys transfer most of the time and for a lot of guys it's a tough transition, whether it be guys on the team worried about this new kid taking their position or just not fitting into the new environment and trying to figure out how everything goes. I kind of thought that's how it was going to be when I got there. Surprisingly enough it wasn't; the guys responded well. As we did our player practices in the summer, I definitely saw kind of the lack of knowledge, the lack of understanding of what we were going to do with the new offense. Being my last go-around, I bought into everything and said whatever happens, that's what my role is going to be. I'm going to do my best, starter or scout team, to help these guys understand this so we're all on the same page to help us be as good as we possibly can be. Those guys responded great to it. I helped with film in the summer and explaining stuff in practice like some of the drills. I did whatever I could so these guys had a really good comfort level going into the season so we weren't picking up any slack and actually made progress from where they had left off in the spring. That was my whole goal of trying to come in and teach and be a little bit of a coach to those kids."
Inside the Gators: For someone stepping into the program for a relatively short period of time who has worked with other head coaches and "been around the block" so to speak, what did you think of Muschamp's style, the way he ran things in his first season and what he's trying to do at Florida?
Wenger: "In my honest opinion, I couldn't have been happier to have played for a head coach like Coach Muschamp. He was exactly what I want in a head coach. He's a blue collar guy. He's hard-nosed. He expects a lot out of his players, expects us to work hard. There's a genuine caring for his players. You can tell that. It was just an awesome experience to play for him. In all honesty, I loved my time at Florida. I loved playing for Coach Muschamp and being a part of the Florida Gators. It was probably one of the best things - if not the best thing - that could have happened to me in my college experience."
Inside the Gators: Muschamp also had a very intense sideline demeanor. It seemed to lessen as the season went on though, especially after some clips of him yelling at officials found their way on highlight reels. Did you notice his intensity decrease a bit or do you think he maintained the same level all season?
Wenger: "To tell you the truth, that's kind of what I like in a head coach, someone who is intense. To me that intensity translates into Coach Muschamp's love of the game. I remember reading up on what happened with the bad language in the LSU game. He wanted to change that. Except for maybe some different words used, I really think that his intensity level didn't change. To me, like I said, that's ideal for a head coach. Someone who is just in the game, seems like he's playing through his eyes on the sideline. You can tell how focused and how into it he is and how much he loves being out there, how much he loves his job, how much he loves his players and loves coaching."
Inside the Gators: Do you think the team fed off of it?
Wenger: "I think so. I definitely did. I can't speak for the other guys, but I defiantly did. He got me fired up and ready to go. Everything that he did was enough for me to push me over the edge and to give my best effort out there every Saturday. He's a great motivator, great coach. Like I said, he's all-around what I wanted in a head coach."
Inside the Gators: To fans it was a surprise that Sam Robey came back, you transferred in as an experienced center yet Jonotthan Harrison, someone who had not played center since high school, wound up winning the starting job. What did you think of his progression over the summer and the course of the season, from the first contest to the bowl game?
Wenger: "As far as coming in, I saw a guy who wanted to learn, wanted to be great and has all the tools as a player talent-wise to be great. He has all the resources around him to be great, but he was still in the molding process of what you want your center in this offense to be. He was one of the best guys that responded to everything that I gave to him. Having played center in this offense at Notre Dame, I wanted to make sure that, if this is going to be our guy at center, he's going to have to be on top of the game and know this stuff better than anybody else on the line. He's going to have to make the calls for the defenses. My impression first-off was that he's got a decent grasp of what we're doing, but the most encouraging thing was he wanted to learn. More encouraging than that even was he came to me and asked me for help specifically in what we do on this. When Coach Verducci wasn't available in the summertime when he was away, he would come up to me and ask questions. That speaks worlds to how much trust he had in me as far as my knowledge of this offense. He's going to be a great player, he really is. He's got all the tools to be as good as he wants to be. It's all on him. He's got a season of it under his belt. As you go through college, and I was the same position as him, after your first year playing there's still a lot more to learn. He's going to have to learn a lot more, but he's a smart kid and he'll be fine as long as he has the same attitude as he did last year and wants to get better and has that willpower to want to be the best he can be."
Inside the Gators: There are a lot of young guys on the offensive line and I won't ask you to evaluate them one-by-one. However, aside from Harrison, were there any other line mates who you saw make a big jump or who you think will play especially well for the team in 2012?
Wenger: "I'd say all the guys who had playing time last year, but if I had to pick one I'd say Matt Patchan. He is a guy that missed spring. I worked with him a lot as far as what the team expected as a tackle in the offense, just understanding and getting it down. It's a slow process. It's a tough offense to get down. He worked his tail off and he had the same mentality as Harrison. He wanted to be great. He wants to be great, and he's not going to let anything get in the way of that. As the season went on, you could tell he was starting to get it, really understand Coach Verducci and what we're trying to do in the offense. What Coach Verducci was teaching technique-wise and what he expects out of a tackle in that offense. I'm excited for him to see what's going to happen and what's going to come of it. Just being able to say that I helped him as far as getting to where he was now, the sky is the limit for him. Pretty much that whole room over there all of those guys are great and they have a lot of talent. Jon Halapio is a powerful guy. They all want to be great. It's just a matter of coming back stronger every year and improving on the things that weren't so great last year and getting even better at the things you did great last year. As long as these guys take the mentality of wanting to be better than they were and not being complacent with where they're at, they're going to be an outstanding group."
Inside the Gators: In the same respect you also went up against some very talented young players on defense. Most would assume that the returning defensive tackles - Dominique Easley and Sharrif Floyd - were two of the hardest guys to defend. What were your impressions of them?
Wenger: "Those two guys - Sharrif and Easley - are just powerful, quick guys, strong, big. It's what you want in a defensive tackle. Those guys are explosive players coming off the ball, and it's awesome. It's what you want for your defense to be successful, but it's also the guys you want to be going against in practice because it's only going to make you better. Those guys have a great motor to them, and you can tell they both love to play the game. Sharrif has an awesome attitude, especially with everything he dealt with in the beginning of the season, being able to be positive and be the same guy week-in and week-out. It speaks worlds about his character and the type of guy he is. Easley, too, he went out there with a lot of passion and energy on the field. To me it is two defensive tackles like that who teams are going to have a hard time running the ball against."
Inside the Gators: During the year there was a lot of attrition in the program. Did the constantly growing number of transfers affect the rest of the team at all or were the guys able to brush off all of the roster adjustments?
Wenger: "I didn't notice any of that. I didn't see it as a problem at all. The guys we had faced adversity throughout the season. Most of the guys did a pretty good job collectively as a group of fighting the fight. It's a team game. You can't win it without all of the guys being on board. That's what Coach Muschamp did a good job of doing, bringing everyone together, saying we're still going to fight and we're still going after everyone that we play, we're not going to be scared of anyone, we're not going to be timid or back down. I've been on teams that have thrown in the towel but that wasn't the case here. He kept it together and kept the bond between the players and coaches throughout the whole program. Everyone was real tight and real strong. He did a great job of not letting the transfers or distractions be an issue with this team. That's the best thing that can happen for them as they move forward to the next season."
Check back on Thursday for Part II of Wenger's Parting Shots Q&A
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