O-line enters season with plenty of ifs

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Florida offensive lineman Stone Forsythe answers questions Thursday from members of the media during the annual Florida Football Media Day at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. [Brad McClenny/The Gainesville Sun]

On the fifth floor of the stadium, usually reserved for big money boosters and dignitaries, it was Media Day and there were plenty of Florida football players you could point at as being “It Factors.”

The quarterback. The corners. The wide receiver who has been given the honor of wearing No. 1.

But a day before the first practice of the year, I wanted to talk to the “If Factors.”

Because let’s face it — the “If Factors” could be the difference between a Top Five football team and a team not also receiving votes.

The offensive linemen have heard all summer — heck, since last January — about the biggest problem the Gators will face this season. And they are that problem, whether it is real or assumed.

Fortunately, on Thursday they wore their numbers so none of us were confused. In some ways, they are as anonymous as the members of Journey not named Steve Perry.

When the SEC media boys and girls picked their offensive lines for the preseason teams, they didn’t even sniff around any of Florida’s guys, not even the one returning starter in center Nick Buchanan. I’ve seen them ranked as low as 12th in the 14-team league.

“We want to prove everyone wrong,” said redshirt freshman guard Chris Bleich. “You see it in the media every day. We’re getting bashed as the weakest one so it’s in the back of our minds.”

The reason, of course, is that four starters are gone from last year’s offensive line, a group that started slow and finished strong. One thing about offensive linemen for the general public — if we haven’t heard of you, you must not be very good.

The truth is, these guys look the part and there is some experience among the starters. Guard Brett Heggie was a starter before injuries messed up his 2018 season.

“I had turf toe, then a broken hand and ankle injuries,” Heggie said, painfully reliving the season. “Last year was almost a wash for me. I played in nine games and seven of those I was dealing with something.

“I’m just praying for a healthy year.”

Then there is tackle Stone Forsythe, who looks a little like a slightly taller version of The Rock. He’s been around for four years and during that time has seen the field, but it wasn’t easy to dislodge Martez Ivey and Jawaan Taylor from the lineup.

“I got a feel for everything being thrown into the middle of games,” he said.

Kind of like the other tackle, Jean Delance, who played in four games in 2018, including the last three.

“I think the greatest thing they did was changing that rule to play in four games,” said offensive line coach John Hevesy. “It got them a chance to play in (games), whether it was four or five snaps in the bowl game, to just get in a bowl game to experience that type of stuff.

“The good thing is they have been on the field, not a lot of experience, but at least (won’t have) the shock of running out on that field from the sidelines for the first time.”

It was Delance, brimming with that pre-camp confidence that flows through all players, who told me Thursday that Gator fans can “chill.” (Yeah, right).

“Fans are going to be fans,” he said. “They’re going to be surprised when we come off the ball. We’re only going to get better as a unit because this is our first time playing together.”

Yes, and therein lies part of the problem. Last year’s offensive line needed time to gel. This year’s offensive line opens up with one of the better front sevens in college football (Miami in Orlando in case you haven’t heard).

And even if you can convince yourself that the starting five will work out just fine, the group behind them is so young some of their voices haven’t changed yet.

“I think we have some pretty good offensive linemen,” coach Dan Mullen said. “They just haven’t played a whole lot.”

In some cases, not at all.

So that will be the challenge for Hevesy and for Mullen to call plays around an offensive line trying to find itself this season.

Which goes back to the “If Factor.”

If these guys mature quickly.

If five guys can play as one.

If they stay healthy.

If Hevesy’s track record for developing young linemen can be sped up.

If they can believe even when the going gets tough.

“The biggest thing with all these guys is just confidence in themselves,” Hevesy said. “Have confidence in yourself and then learn to communicate as a group. Once you got the confidence in yourself — again I have the confidence in you, we’re putting you out there. We have the confidence you’re going to play, just make sure you have it in yourself.”

If all that happens, perhaps the line is not a weak link on a strong team.

“We know we’re young,” said Forsythe. “But look at the guys we have been practicing against. Cece (Jefferson), Jachai (Polite), (Jabari) Zuniga. We just don’t have the game reps we need.

“We have a chip on our shoulder to show what we can do.”

And a long line of people looking to knock it off.

Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at pat.dooley@gvillesun.com. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.

 

 

 

12 COMMENTS

  1. Did he mean “It Factors” in the lede? The QB, the corners, etc. … these are the guys who we know have IT. As for the O line, I’m thinking they and the coaches are smart enough and talented enough to make this work. Just give the backs a crease or give Franks an added second and we should be fine.

  2. Great job fleshing out the lingering issues of the offensive line Pat. They may sink, swim or soar but everybody is watching very closely for any indications prior to game minutes.

    People are talking about our offense, how about Miami’s? Unproven and untested Hurricane QBs may be more of an issue in the outcome of this game.

    For Florida, it’s a matter of balance. There are other areas of the offense and team that can compensate for their lack of experience to win this first game. That has more to do with the coaches and staff to game plan and use strength to cover weakness.

  3. funny but i read this article intended to make me more realistic, and come out more positive than i was. i must have some sort of a mental strength problem i guess. with frye joining the staff, coaching is even stronger. i do respect miami’s front, but if we have enough time to exploit their inexperienced defensive backfield, that will get us off to a good start. the game is designed, imo, to have defensive fronts put heavy pressure on offensive lines, thats the reality, its just about how long it takes to jell together.

  4. Yes, Pat, last year’s offensive line took time to gel. Well, you know what? They were learning a new playbook and how to work with the new coaching staff.

    In fact, every position group was going through the same growing pains for growing gains, and they were successful 10 times, including the final four games, which you found a way to diminish those victories and the Vandy comeback. UF finished 6th in the Coaches’ Poll, but what do they know?

    Now the playbook is familiar, the coaches respected, and terrific camaraderie among the whole team. There’s no reason not to be confident.

    Sometimes I think that Pat expects the worst so he won’t be as disappointed as he would be if he expected the best and didn’t get it.

    • Nah, Phil….he’s just a realist c a capital R. Realistically, last year was a fluke during which an at best 4-9 team somehow by sheer luck wound up 10-3 and when they wound up ranked #6 anybody with half a brain could see that it was a travesty since they played an unbelievably weak schedule. So really, he’s just trying to tell us that they don’t stand a chance against a real team like Miami, and should drop down to FCS at the first chance. I appreciate it! I’m sure our opponents do too.

      • Maybe we all have the schedule wrong. Maybe we are playing the Redhawks of Oxford from Miami of Ohio, not the ‘Canes of Cuba North. WAIT! That’s worse! The Cradle of Coaches, home to Ara and Woody and Bo and John Harbaugh, Sean Payton and the mighty Ron the Zookster! Not to mention Paul Brown, Sid Gillman, and Weeb (not as bad as Sue or Moon Unit) Ewbank (not to be confused with Bob Eubank, former host of The Newly Weeb, er, Wed Game.) Ask not for whom the Big Ben Roethlisberger Bell tolls, it tolls for ‘dem Fightin’ Gators. I guess we’re doomed by either of the Miami teams. Still, in all kinds of weather, we won’t back down!

  5. Sadly the Miami game is almost a no-win type game for UF. If our Gators win, some will suddenly point out that UM is in their first year with a new offensive staff. Lose and they will throw even more shade at the Gators and our accomplishments from last season. I just want 8/24 to get here and watch us boat race that bunch of scUM from south FL!!

    • It is indeed a no-win, Sparky — just like the Peach Bowl was. When we beat the hell out of Michigan, you would have thought the poor devils were so weakened by the absence of a couple of players that they had to borrow players from Rutgers or somebody just to field a team. Never mind our own absences — why, if not for losing half their team before the game, we wouldn’t even be worthy to carry their jock straps. I’m really getting sick of this nonsense.

  6. There have been article after article this summer on how Mullen is struggling on the recruiting trail and can’t bring in 5* players or keep talent in the state of Florida. The one thing that everyone agreed on was that Mullen can develop talent and coach players up better than anyone. So now the season is starting, and I trust Mullen to do what he does best. Before last year, the offensive line was supposed to be a weakness, Franks was a huge liability and the wide receivers couldn’t get open. It was a mess. Now, we are wishing we had last year’s offensive line back and can’t say enough great things about Franks. THINK ABOUT THAT! It was practically unanimous that Franks and the OL sucked going into last season. Mullen has turned those units around in ONE year. I’m going to trust Mullen to do what he does best….coach up players and attack defenses at their weakest points.