For the last six months, Jim McElwain has been hyping his offensive line, proclaiming it is better and more physical, now a strength of the Florida football team.
He did it in the spring. He did it on his May speaking tour. He did it in Destin and Hoover, Ala. And he’s been doing it throughout preseason camp.
Now, it’s time for the linemen to see if they can go out and back up their head coach’s words.
This first test, coming Saturday in Arlington, Texas, figures to be one of the sternest of the season. Maybe the sternest. Michigan’s fast and physical defensive front is a proven team strength, led by standout end Rashan Gary, the nation’s No. 1 overall recruit two years ago, and tackle Maurice Hurst, who is projected to be a first-round NFL draft pick in the spring.
McElwain has hyped his line. Now he’s challenging it.
“He told us in a meeting, ‘I want y’all to be physical.’ He told us, ‘I’m putting this game on y’all,’ ” center T.J. McCoy said. “We’re ready to accept the challenge, man.
“I just see it as another stepping stone of proving what Coach Mac is saying, that we’re the strength of this team. They have a lot of good guys. I believe the strength of their team is the defensive front, so we’re going to have to fight our tails off the whole game. It’s going to be a battle and it’s going to be won in the trenches.
“This is going to be a big game for the offensive line, just proving to people that we’re not the same group we’ve been for the last two years.”
This is all just talk at this point, of course. Until the offensive line goes out and actually backs it up on the field, there are going to be doubters.
Because the line has a track record of failure in McElwain’s first two seasons.
In 2015, the Gators gave up a whopping 45 sacks, the most in the nation. Not all of them were on the line, but most were. Then last season, UF finished last in the SEC in rushing, a sure sign that the Gators were losing the line of scrimmage.
There have been some promising moments, highlighted by the second-half performance in the win at LSU last fall. But, overall, for the past two seasons the inconsistent and unreliable play of the offensive line has been a detriment.
Based on what they’re saying, McElwain and the players obviously think this is going to be a major turnaround season.
And it’s not just the offensive players saying it. It’s also the defensive players who go against the Big Nasties every day in practice.
“They’re a lot more physical,” junior defensive end Cece Jefferson said. “You’ve got big Waany (Jawaan Taylor), he’s 340. You’ve got big Tez (Martez Ivey), he’s about 325. Once they strike, they’re throwing all that on you, so you’re feeling all of it.
“I would say they’re communicating better. They’re definitely more physical. And you can just tell that unit is very close. There is nothing that nobody can do to get in between those guys. I love it, those guys, how tight they have gotten.”
It is a different offensive line in many ways.
There’s a new coach, the highly energetic Brad Davis. Ivey has moved back to tackle, his more natural position. McCoy is entrenched at center after becoming the starter late last season. Brett Heggie, one of the line’s most physical players, has stepped in at left guard. Taylor and Fred Johnson have matured mentally and physical. Junior Tyler Jordan provides proven depth at center, guard and tackle.
Jefferson said he knew it was a different line — with a different attitude — one day early in camp.
“I kind of didn’t bring it in fastball and Tez kind of gave me a little wake-up call,” Jefferson said. “That’s when I knew those guys were clicking. Coach Davis does a tremendous job of bringing energy every day, getting his guys ready to come out and practice. Those guys have done a complete 360.”
They’ve turned it around on the practice field. Now, can they do it in an actual game against a quality opponent?
They’re about to find out.
If the Gators can protect the quarterback and get some push in the running game against the strong Michigan front, then McElwain must have known what he was talking about when he first called this offensive line a team strength back in the spring.
One thing is certain heading into Saturday’s game. The offensive linemen are a confident bunch.
“What gives us confidence is that we’ve been working hard all summer, working hard all camp,” McCoy said. “We’ve been in the system for three years. Everybody on the offensive line knows it inside and out.
“We’ve been growing (together). That’s why I have so much faith and I trust Martez. I trust Brett Heggie. I trust Tyler Jordan. I trust Fred Johnson. I trust Jawaan Taylor. I trust them, man. We’re all dogs. That’s our mentality, being dogs. Every time we break it down after practice, we break it down on tough. We’re going be some tough people this Saturday.”
Contact Robbie Andreu at 352-374-5022 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Also check out Andreu’s blog at Gatorsports.com.