UF’s offensive line development critical

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Guard Brett Heggie (61) and center Nick Buchanan (66) return to man the Florida offensive line. [Cyndi Chambers/Correspondent]

College football programs traditionally show significant improvement from year one to year two under a new coaching staff.

If that happens at Florida under coach Dan Mullen, the Gators could be College Football Playoff contenders next season after going 10-3 and rising into the top 10 in the nation in 2018.

For it to happen, the Gators will have to improve in some areas and some new, inexperienced players are going to have to come through at certain positions.

The Sun is breaking down the team position-by-position, one position at a time:

Offensive line

Who’s gone: Tackles Martez Ivey and Jawaan Taylor, guards Fred Johnson and Tyler Jordan and tackle/guard Kavaris Harkless. This position group has been hit harder by departures than any other. The Gators are losing four of their starting five. Those four starters — Ivey, Taylor, Johnson and Jordan — have been starting games since their true freshman season. That was four years ago for Ivey, Johnson and Jordan and three for Taylor. The four combined to start 145 games. They were the heart of an offensive line that was a big disappointment in 2017, but eventually became a team strength in 2018 under new offensive line coach John Hevesy.

Who’s back: Tackles Noah Banks, T.J. Moore, Stone Forsythe and Richard Gouraige, guards Jean Delance, Brett Heggie, Chris Bleich, centers Nick Buchanan and T.J. McCoy and center/guard Griffin McDowell. Of those 10, only Buchanan, Heggie and McCoy have started games and seen significant playing time. All 10 have seen the field, even the true freshmen last season — Gouraige, Chris Bleich and McDowell.

Who’s new: The 10 scholarship offensive linemen on the roster will be reinforced by seven true freshmen — Kingsley Eguakun, Deyavie Hammond, Will Harrod, Riley Simonds, Michael Tarquin, Ethan White and Wardrick Wilson. Four — Eguakun, Harrod, Tarquin and White — are early enrollees who will participate in spring practice.

What’s next: Develop, develop, develop. This is a process Hevesy started with his inexperienced and true freshman linemen in the fall and it will continue this spring, summer and fall.

These are young players — and a young line — that needs to be developed over time. In some instances it takes years, just like it did with Ivey, Jordan and Johnson. Other times it happens relatively soon, like it did with Taylor, who became a starter and efficient player early in his true freshman season.

An offense is usually only as good as its line — so this is THE critical area of concern heading into the spring, and beyond in 2019.

Possible scenario: The inexperienced line will struggle in the spring, get off to a slow start next season, but will start showing weekly improvement over the course of the season. Hevesy has a successful track record of developing offensive linemen. That will be very much in play in 2019.

54 COMMENTS

  1. Usually it takes a new offensive line about four to five games for everyone to mesh their individual development into a cohesive, effective performance. Can Florida survive through the opening third of the upcoming season while its offensive line is coming together? Hevesy has a proven track record as a teacher and drill sergeant motivator, though he’s no magician. And will impatient Gator fans with elevated expectations cut Hevesy’s newly built forward wall any slack while they grow into their roles?

    • A few posters — one in particular who tends to be correct in his analyses — have predicted a small step backward in Year 2. That certainly is not a popular thought, in the context of us somehow being in the playoffs next season, but if it does play out that way then this might be the area in which it appears. I think there definitely would be a “disturbance in the force” among fans…..but how serious the effect would be would depend on how quickly it is remedied. If the OL takes half a season to gel, that doesn’t leave much time for those expecting a SEC or an NC by 2019. Those who are realistic about us competing in the 2020-2021 time frame, of course, will take it in stride and give Mullen & Company time to get us there.

      Believe me, this same dynamic and discussion is going on at Texas right now, and the same realistic vs unrealistic expectations are in play there too. Problem for them is (a) the old guard boosters are a very impatient lot, almost insanely so and (b) they don’t have a jewel like Dan Mullen.

      • Anyone here coach football (asks Gelco as he raises his own hand)? Most folks here know the team goes as the OLine goes. One of the hardest aspects of coaching the JV is getting the big uglies to commit to a decidely unsexy position. Yet when they do, they usually get a perm position on the offense. We use helmet stickers as motivation, if a RB scores a TD, the OLine get a sticker as well as the RB. What we saw this past season is a coach (Mullen) fully aware of the importance of the OLine and their development. We had ostensibly the same line as the year before, and what a difference a good coach makes! I think we’re trending positive in this category, but heck, I think we’re trending positive in every positional category. Love what Kelly, er, I mean Frost, uh, wait, I mean Mullen is doing with this team!!!!

      • I really hope Gators have learned their lesson regarding expectations and pressure. There will be down years even once Mullen gets it rolling. It’s par for the course. I hope we don’t run another coach out of town. I will be happy with another 10 games and a top 10 final ranking next year.

        As for next year, having three players with some starting experience isn’t great but man is it light years better then what we had a few years ago. Three players with some starting experience, several more with backup experience and another year of development, plus SEVEN true freshmen OL — that is definitely something Hevesy can work with (especially with four of those seven being EEs). The first five games next year are Miami, UT Martin, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Towson. It is not a cakewalk but Miami doesn’t have a QB and has a new coach, Kentucky lost the player that has brought them the most success in recent memory, and Tennessee is still Tennessee.

        I’m excited y’all. I just took a look at the Gators vs. Miami ticket prices though and eek (the cheapest ones are the same price as the cheapest NC tickets for tonight).

      • 6 we are going to have a drop in experienced linemen not talent. We also have some that have played minor roles in our system though not starting roles. While the starters were there because they were the better players in their respective positions I’m not so sure the next men in line weren’t that far from being ready. I think we’ll come along fat than most would think. Or biggest concern last year was the o line. Turns out it was more s&c than anything. They will come in fit. I think our offense is going to morph a bit this year in the direction Mullen intends to go. The players on the ol this year will be slotted to fit that direction. If we survive the off season without injury and our injured players return ready to play we run a offense that takes as much pressure off the OL as possible, franks and co have to carry the show until the line is up to speed. Of course I’m no coach.

        • That’s a good point, 65 — I think the S&C plays a very prominent role too. Note how injuries were down during the season, so there’s no reason not to expect them to be also down in the off-season. I can’t wait to see what develops during spring practice and fall camp, let alone what else happens in February!

    • Hey SparkyGator – you are correct in my opinion. CDM will know what he has in the O-line and I am sure a game plan will be devised that will bring out the best that our offense can be. I would imagine plays that get the ball out of the QB’s hand quickly and running misdirection plays as well. It will be interesting to see what transpires in the new football season. Us fans have expectations now because of the success we had this year, so anything short of the same success or better will be looked upon as a step back. We play in the best conference in the NCAA and because of that the SEC teams play each other. That means that we face some of the best teams in the NCAA week in and week out. So I am going to look at this year realistically and logically as I do with everything in life. All I can suggest to everyone is to enjoy what we now have and do not get caught up in what happened last year as compared to the new year. We all believe that we now have our coach of the present and future. So let us enjoy GATOR football again like we had become accustomed to in the 1990’s and mid 2000’s. I like what we have compared to say Bama. What I see are many young men wanting to go play at Bama because they know what Bama has been able to accomplish in their glorious past. To me, I believe that the chemistry on Bama won’t be as cohesive as our team because our players came here to work hard to bring U of F back to national prominence. Those players that choose Bama seem to be wanting a NC ring and that is the reason that they chose Bama. Look at the DB Surtain II on Bama’s team. I mentioned him at another article, so I will use it again for my choice to compare him to one of ours. Surtain is a 5 star recruit and we all wanted him to come to U of F. He was picked on in the Orange Bowl and was burned often. Now compare him to Dean on our team. I don’t remember if he is a 3 or 4 star, but he played better than Surtain did this year. In fact I believe that it was stated that Dean is likely the starting DB across from the other starter (who’s name eludes me now). Take it for what it is worth of my opinion, but I will not have any expectations with our team and will watch and support them as we all should do every game of every season. I just hope I live much longer so that I can watch as many games as I can. Watching our GATORS play is one of the very few things I will miss when I expire…LOL. No expectations just support, cheer and enjoy! GO GATORS!!!

  2. The one thing I’ve noticed about the best OL’s in the SEC is that as long as their RB is still upright, every lineman is making an effort to push, pull, or drag the pile for extra yardage. The UF line was better at that this season, but still not to the point where every man was playing to the whistle. I’ve seen the UGA OL push the pile or drag their RB for as many as five extra yards on a play. That’s not a matter of skill, but rather a matter of the relentless effort that CDM preaches, and it can be the difference between a TD drive or a 3-and-out.

  3. no question some of the line struggled with pass blocking last year, so im still worried. things only got better when the qbs ran harder. who are the best 5 out of the 15 plus. are they ultimately going to be the guys that can win championships down the road? this is the #1 place to watch imo. as long as the right long term guys are in there, i can wait. its going to be painful, not muschamp painful, but please dont expect miracles, but do expect more qbs running!
    the tampa papers say the bucs want kirby smart of georgia, so he is playing them for a raise i believe.not that cdm would do the same, look for some nfl guys to the waters with him imo. i feel good about him staying, but i never thought the old ball coach would leave, certainly not for dan snyder. ouch!

  4. Our OL was clearly soft in the first three games this year. We lost to Kentucky as a result. Yes, it will be tough sledding through the first 3 games this year with a new line, as mentioned before, but, the advantage we have this year is that we will start with 3-5 new eager beaver O linemen who want to learn and excel in Hevesy’s system, whereas we had some holdovers last year from the prior regime that had developed bad habits and weren’t as open to change initially. We will also have greater depth this year at the OLine which will help.

  5. No doubt, the OL’s development as an effective, cohesive blocking unit will be the key to Gator success in 2019. I have faith in Hevesy having them clicking on all cylinders by mid season. The challenge will be that by then, the Gators will have already faced Miami, Kentucky, Tennessee, Auburn, LSU and USCe, with 4 of them away from the Swamp.

    The only way to get through that gauntlet with the goal of winning the SEC East intact, is for the Gator D to be really stout right out of the gate and help us win some ugly, low scoring games. Is Gator Nation ready to watch another half season of less than scintillating offense?

    Go Gators!!!

    • I think all the pieces should be there next season, and the OL may or may not allow our full offense potential to be realized initially — absolutely correct, StL. Regardless, the OL does not promise to be “awful” initially…..they may be only “average” for the first few games until they “mesh”, as Clyde says. If that’s the case, while the offense may not exactly “scintillate” at first, it should be in form to take us thru the first third of the season until the OL catches up (if that’s the case). I just hope we clobber Miami, in as much as their AD has already stated in one WWF interview or another that they will do that to us based on their new head coach.

    • “Is Gator Nation ready to watch another half season of less than scintillating offense?”

      I am ready to win! I do believe that no matter what, Mullen will always come up with some wrinkles that will keep things interesting. The other thing that needs to happen if you are correct is that we will need to make some plays on special teams again, just as we did last year!

  6. I for one am kind’ve glad these guys are finally gone and we’re getting some new blood in there. They’ve obviously severly underperformed their entire careers. No offense to them and I’m grateful that they were Gators and gave everything they had to the program, and I know it’s not necessarily their fault as they’ve had some seriously bad coaching up until this season, but I think we’re going to be better off than people think. Now we’re going to have an influx of guys who Mullen and Hevesy recruited to run their system and have been and will be able to develop from the moment they step on campus. The coaches shouldn’t have to correct bad habits that were left behind by the previous regime. It’s too bad those guys didn’t have this coaching staff their entire careers cause after watching them take a drastic step up this season, one can only imagine how good they would’ve been if they did have this coaching. Now we get to see what this coaching staff can develop.

    • I agree that it will probably be better than we think, and also the point about new blood and not having to unlearn old habits/learn new ones. Assuming that they have had solid coaching in high school, which is a pretty good assumption based on their *ratings at least, the learning curve and ramp up may not take that long. Right now it is an unknown — maybe 50-50 at the worst, 60-40 at best — but I’d call the glass half full at this point in any event because (a) we’ve got the beef (talent), (b) we’ve got a kick-ass offensive coaching staff and, (c) don’t forget our truly stellar S&C program. Ain’t nobody in the SEC going to kick sand in our face at the beach anymore — and that goes for Miami and FSU too.

    • Good post! It is much harder to replace a bad habit than learn a new one. Some of those players had a sloppy joe meatball mentality from day one, and as much as the coaches managed to kick it out of them at the end, the new players are a different breed. These are guys who, when told, you will never work harder, their eyes light up and their blood starts pumping.

      Some of the old guys came here because they were told you will never eat more pizza, and they loved the idea of playing for a weak, lazy coach who wouldn’t demand much of them.

      • That was awfully harsh Jaws. I don’t doubt that 3 years of soft S&C and poor coaching from McElwhiner and his lousy staff got those boys to develop some really bad habits. However, do you really believe those talented 18 year-olds really knew what they were getting into when they signed on to play for the mighty Gators and a coach who had won a NC at powerhouse Alabama?

        They were sold a bill of goods, as we all were. I’m sure they too are grateful that’s all in the past. I believed Martez Ivey when he said he wished he still had another year to play for UF.

        Go Gators!!!

    • Different formations is where it really helps having Mullen and his staff. Sometimes spreading the field with 4 and 5 WRs helps the O-line blocking for qb runs. Mullen proved again this year that he is a master at getting guys in good positions. That’s kinda cool ain’t it? 😂

      • What we shouldn’t run one formation where we all know the play that’s about to be run? Say it isn’t so. Just kidding you guys. Or play book is now more than two plays plus the other two options…. Three busted run play and the busted pass play. I think that was Mac s whole repartee.

          • Last I heard, everybody had gone home and Alabama’s offense was still out there on the goal line trying to get in. I’ll keep you posted on any new developments, but as recently as 10 minutes ago the janitorial staff cleaning up the stadium was heard to be chanting, “…..when hell freezes over….when hell freezes over……”…………….

  7. They say the proof is in the puddin’ and it’s obvious that Coach Hevesy knows how to do his job. The Gators had been lacking productive results on the O-line it seems like forever until he took the job. Next year’s group should shape up in good time if they put in the effort. I feel confident about it after seeing what these coaches can produce.

  8. In my Opinion, I think we may not take any steps back. Our Oline prior to 2018 was as pathetic as it gets. With what this staff did in less than a year is nothing short of amazing! I honestly believe Hevesy will have his Oline game ready by the start of the season and with CDM and staff game planning to strength’s of the team, Not saying we will not see freshmen mistakes, that happens more than not. I just get a good feeling about how this entire team responds to the coaching they will be getting, Offense and Defense.

    Looking at the 2019 schedule, AU, LSU and UGA all should be interesting games that are winnable games. UGA may have elite athletes but, as was shown in 2018, UF has better coaching and we should be solid at DB that makes me feel like we could “possibly” go 12-0 and make the SECCG or even 11-1 and make the SECCG. The only game worries me, LSU in Baton Rouge. Anyway, it’s just my opinion and we still have 8 months to wait n see.

    • That’s a decent opinion, Wisconsin, and a damn good point to boot. That’s our Ace-in-the-Hole, as George Strait might say. I’m pretty conservative in calling things, but I do agree that all of our games next year are winnable — and for the same reasons you articulate. I guess it depends on when next year’s team believes that too, but in any case I don’t see the same stutter steps as last year happening until that sinks in. It may be old fashioned, but I still think character matters both individually and as a team. Dan Mullen & Staff have 8 months to work with their hearts, minds, and bodies — I think we all know what can happen when he has time to prep; people should look no further than the Peach Bowl to know that!

      LSU will always be tough in Baton Rouge, even when they’re down. Just the nature of the beast, but they put their pants on one leg at a time too, and regardless of their expectations for the coming season we’ll just wait and see if it all pans out for them. I’d keep my eye on Tennessee though, but who knows for sure?

  9. I’m in the camp of thinking that we might not regress as far as many think…if at all. The returning guys know the expectations and they know the strength and conditioning program and of course they’ve got a year under their belts with the new offensive scheme. Plus, four recruits will be enrolled this month so they’ll get right into S&C as well as spring practice. As long as Coach Hevesy can find 6-7 mean-streak warriors among the 17 guys, I think he can mold them into a very effective unit.

    Also, having lots of returning skill players as well as improved QB play (whoever that may be) will take a little pressure off of the OL, whereas in the past we’ve been hoping for the opposite.

    I’m not looking at 2019 through rose colored glasses and I don’t expect to be in the CFP this year, but at this point I like the Gators’ chances to be in the mix for the SEC East.

  10. I believe we will have a very good offensive line this year, and one which will evolve to be great by the end of the season. The reason is simple: Our coaching staff has high standards, and those standards never change. The players are given only one choice– rise to the level of our expectations. Period.

    Further, among the players we have coming back are guys who now have internalized the expectations and will serve as leaders for the new ones. These older guys have found out how good they can be when they do the work, and they have no desire to go back to the fat and lazy days of Uncle Yellow Teeth. They will bring the new guys along, and two of the most important lessons they learned are going to make a big difference:

    1) You play the way you practice 2) You never take a play off

  11. By the mid-summer, we’ll have 17 OL on roster. I love it.

    Of course there will be a breaking in period with a new group as they get a feel for each other, but I don’t forsee any cataclysmic reversals along the line. The guys who are already here and have been in the offensive systems and S&C program for their second year will be the starting group, and the freshmen will mostly be the back-ups.

    There is something some folks aren’t seeing here… we have a QUALITY coaching staff who just took the team’s #1 skill position, QB, which had a broken QB in Feleipe Franks and turned him completely around and into a solid SEC QB in just one season. The same could be said about the OL by game #3 against Colorado State too. We have a staff that knows how to get results. The main thing is, this staff has mostly rid this program of the losing, undisciplined culture which permeated it before.

    We’ll be fine on OL. If we lose any games next season, they’ll be in the first half of the season imo, as the OL will begin to gel by game 3 or 4.

  12. I think that although this may appear to be a group of potential weakness on the O-side of the ball, we’ll be ok to start the season. Gone are the days of recruiting the student body to fill in enough guys to to have a scrimmage. Now we’ve had one season of Mr. Savage to work over the big uglies that took a red shirt year and probably have come along nicely behind the scenes. Would be nice to see updated player stats posted to see where we stand in that regard. For those that have started and played this past season, this will be their second spring under coach Hevesy. He’s been great at working and teaching this group to play the position. Add a little CDM motivation and these guys will be a strength. Not worried too much here…

  13. Just a little trivia, did everyone realize that CDM , Hevesy and Gonzales, all 3, were with the 2006 and 2008 national champion team here at UF under UM? Where you find one, you find all 3!! just thought i’d throw that out there for those who haven’t realized it yet.

  14. Our new OL recruits are highly rated overall and should quickly adapt to their rigorous training and learning the offensive schemes and proper techniques for executing plays. Those who are returning must lead the way, and thankfully we have a few with substantial playing experience (e.g. the center position should be in good shape, and this person calls the OL plays). Despite losing two very good offensive tackles, the Gator O-Line will refill these positions and then some. The opportunity for early playing time for the true freshmen should motive them to excel. As for the others, TIME TO STEP UP AND GET’R DONE. GO GATORS!!!