The upside: Through recruiting and what has turned out to be one big transfer (center T.J. McCoy), Florida coach Jim McElwain and his staff have replenished an offensive line that barely had enough players to practice with in McElwain’s first spring three years ago.
The Gators have enough players now. And enough depth. And enough experience. And now they appear to have enough energy and passion thanks to the addition of new line coach Brad Davis, who has seemed to light a fire under the big guys.
When Davis was hired last winter, McElwain challenged him to make the offensive line tougher and more physical. By all indications, that transformation has been taking place, and should remain ongoing through preseason camp. There’s a perceptible new attitude and swagger up front.
In breaking down the line, the biggest positive is probably on the flanks, where the Gators have two potential All-SEC type tackles in junior Martez Ivey and sophomore Jawaan Taylor. Ivey moves back to his more natural position (left tackle) after starting at guard last season, and seems more comfortable out on the edge. The former five-star recruit has made steady improvement over the past two years and appears primed for a breakout season now that he’s back at tackle. Taylor seemingly came out of nowhere to start 12 games as a true freshman last season. He more than held his own. He quickly established himself as perhaps the line’s most physical player and a force in the running game. He’s worked on, and has improved, his pass blocking in the year he’s been here.
Another strength is right in the middle, where McCoy seemed to bring the emotion and physicality the line has been seeking when he took over at center during the Kentucky game in 2016. He started the final four games of the season and seemed to help solidify the overall line play. He’s undersized in terms of height, but his relentless play seems to compensate for any physical shortcomings he might have.
The Gators appear solid at both guard spots, where there is plenty of experience in Tyler Jordan, Fred Johnson and Antonio Riles. Redshirt freshman Brett Heggie doesn’t have any experience, but he was UF’s best guard in the spring and enters camp as the No. 1 left guard. Like Taylor and McCoy, he’s a physical player.
Jordan, who has started 10 games over the past two seasons, brings versatility to the line. He’s played center and both guard positions and has even stepped in at tackle on occasion in practice. He helps provide depth across the board.
The downside: The depth is good, better, but still not great. Several possible key backups have little playing experience. That group would include Stone Forsythe, Nick Buchanan, Andrew Mike and true freshman T.J. Moore. So, there is still work to be done building the OL roster.
And the Big Nasties will have to contend with something they haven’t had to in the past — high expectations. Those expectations have been placed there by many, leading with their head coach. McElwain has been saying since last spring that this line is a strength of the football team, something he reiterated earlier this week at media day.
Clearly, the potential is there — depth, experience and attitude. But the line has yet to prove itself on the field. There were some positive stretches over the last half of last season, including the second half of the LSU game, but the overall line play still lacked consistency, which played a significant role in the overall offensive struggles last season. A sobering example is the SEC Championship Game, where the running backs had a difficult time getting back to the line of scrimmage against Alabama.
Young guy to watch: The Gators have had some success playing true freshmen up front (Ivey, Taylor, Jordan and Johnson) and that trend should continue with tackle Kadeem Telfort. An early enrollee, Telfort made quite an impression on the coaches in the spring with his size, strength and athletic ability. He’s expected to get reps at one, maybe both, tackle spots, giving the Gators even more depth on the edge.
UF’s Probable Depth Chart
Ranking the SEC offensive lines
7. Texas A&M
12. Mississippi State
13. South Carolina
Don’t be surprised if: Walk-on guard Tanner Rowell starts emerging as a redshirt freshman this fall. He is the son of former UF offensive tackle Tony Rowell, and like his father, he is a tough, physical player who plays with relentless effort. Those qualities caught the attention of the coaching staff in the spring and he’ll have a chance to work his way into the playing rotation this season. Even if he doesn’t, he’s someone to keep an eye on.
Contact Robbie Andreu at 352-374-5022 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Also check out Andreu’s blog at Gatorsports.com.