We break down the 2019 Florida football team by position group. This week a look at the offensive line.
The strength of the front is up the middle, where the line’s two most experienced players reside — senior center Nick Buchanan and junior guard Brett Heggie. They are the only two who bring significant starting experience to the line.
Heggie started seven games as a sophomore in 2017, then had to battle through a series of injuries last year that cut down his playing time. He managed to play in nine games but had no starts.
The good news is Heggie is healthy again and having a strong preseason camp in which he has emerged as a leader, along with Buchanan.
Heggie is a warrior, and his toughness should have a positive influence on all the young players around him.
UF coach Dan Mullen considers the center position to be the most important one on the line, and the Gators have a proven one in Buchanan, whose career turned around completely with the coaching change last year. Under Mullen and offensive line coach John Hevesy, Buchanan went from little-used player to perhaps the MVP up front.
Buchanan is an intelligent player who is adept at making all the line calls and getting the Gators in the right protections. He’s also bigger and stronger now that he’s had 20 months going through Nick Savage’s strength and conditioning program.
Stone Forsythe, the starter at right tackle, also brings some experience to the front. The redshirt junior played in all 13 games last season with one start. In 2017, he started the first two games of the season, so he gives the Gators a third player with significant experience.
Also on the plus side, four of the five true freshmen were early enrollees and are way ahead of where they would have been — physically and mentally — had they not arrived until this summer.
Youth and inexperience make the offensive line the biggest question mark on the team heading into the season. The Gators have lots of fast and skilled playmakers, but will quarterback Feleipe Franks have the time to spread the ball around? And will there be any holes for Lamical Perine and the other running back to run through?
The SEC is a line of scrimmage league, and if you get beat up front you almost always get beat on the scoreboard. This young line is going to be thrown straight into the fire against a physical and experienced Miami defensive front in the opener in Orlando.
It’s tough to play as a true freshman on the offensive line in the SEC, but the Gators have five who may have to at some point. Three are listed second on the depth chart — Michael Tarquin, Ethan White and Kingsley Eguakun — so there’s a chance they could even see playing time as early as the opener.
Young guy to watch
Redshirt freshman tackle Richard Gouraige.
The former four-star prospect coming out of high school has benefited from a demanding offseason strength and conditioning program under Savage, losing weight and gaining strength (and quickness). He definitely looks physically ready to play at this level now.
He is an athletic big man who got a ton of reps last fall. He also played in two games, so he’s ready to take the next step and possibly become a full-time player if needed. If nothing else, he gives the Gators solid depth at the critical left tackle spot.
Don’t be surprised if …
Mullen works around the youth and inexperience by running a lot of quick passes and screens, at least early in the season, to give the guys up front a chance to have some success and gain some early confidence.
The Gators successfully executed a similar plan in the win at Mississippi State last season. This is a line that should steadily improve over the course of the season. At least that’s the plan, and usually the way it has worked out under line coach John Hevesy.
As improvement comes, Mullen will start opening up the passing game.
“I see it as a challenge. Live up to the expectations. You’ve got a great ceiling, you’ve got a great team, you’ve got a lot of different positions that have a lot of experience. So, I see it as a challenge. Every day, step up to the plate and get it done. There are no ifs, ands or buts. We have to get it done. You’ve got a great team, you’ve got a great foundation and you can’t just say, ‘Oh, this one position was holding us back.’ That’s not acceptable. We have to get it done. We have good guys, good skill players and good defensive players all across the board. So, we have to get it done, protect Feleipe (Franks), give him time and do our jobs.” — starting right tackle Jean Delance
Probable offensive line depth chart