Since Jim McElwain called out his big guys for not being strong enough or tough enough in the season-opening loss to Michigan, the Florida offensive line has quietly slipped back to where offensive lines traditionally like to operate — in anonymity.
That’s a good thing.
Because usually the only time people are talking about or writing about the Big Nasties is when they’ve messed up. Say, like the Florida offensive line did in that 33-17 loss in which the guys up front got mauled and manhandled by the Michigan defensive front.
Since then, the Florida offensive line has moved out of the spotlight. A good sign, for sure, and one that has been reflected on the field.
The line that McElwain said was going to be a team strength before the start of the season appears to be, well, maybe at least inching in that direction following two solid performances in back-to-back wins against Tennessee and Kentucky.
There’s still a long way to go, but at least it’s a start.
“Yes, sir, we’ve definitely gotten better in everything we do,” junior left tackle Martez Ivey said. “We’ve bonded. We’re playing for each other, getting up, watching film. It’s a big part of it, and just buying in and believing in each other. That’s what we’ve done day in and day out (since the Michigan game).”
There were many disappointing aspects of Florida’s performance in the opener. But none more stunning, more unexpected, more impactful, than the play of the offensive line.
This is a veteran group, one that showed real flashes over the second half of last season, and it had been touted as a team strength by McElwain throughout the spring and summer.
Then the big guys went out and got pushed all over the field by the Wolverines. The line gave up six sacks, seemed overmatched throughout, and the running game generated a mere 11 yards.
“It was a gut punch is what it was,” offensive line coach Brad Davis said Wednesday. “It was what we needed. Obviously, we anticipated playing much better. We certainly prepared to go out and execute and play well. We did not. We had to go back to the drawing board and figure out the why.
“We’ve identified some of those issues and are continually trying to progress through those issues. From a communication standpoint more so than anything. I think we’ve taken some steps since that game. There’s been significant improvement. It’s a work in progress. We’re nowhere close to where we want to be in terms of our expectation level.
“It was a punch right in the gut. It was a wake-up call. We can do so much more and we can play so much better.”
The line has played better — and stayed out of the limelight — since the Michigan game.
In the last-second win over Tennessee, the Gators rushed for 168 yards and the line gave quarterback Feleipe Franks enough time to execute some big plays in the passing game, including the 63-yard TD pass to Tyrie Cleveland on the final play.
The line took another step forward at Kentucky last Saturday night. In the decisive fourth quarter, the front created significant push in the running game and protected Luke Del Rio on the two touchdown drives that rallied the Gators to a 28-27 win.
Ivey said the turnaround began in the film room the Monday after the loss to Michigan.
“We already knew the mistakes, it was just about execution, executing,” he said. “That’s all we really had to do was execute. The last two weeks we bought in using our technique and not doing what we think is right as individuals. We just believe in the system and now we’re executing.”
Davis said the linemen watched the tape objectively and plenty of criticism was passed around the room. But the linemen took it well and have been very coachable ever since.
“To my guys’ credit, they handled it like men,” Davis said. “They checked their egos, they looked at themselves in the mirror and said, ‘OK I have to approach practice a little bit different. We’ve got to start investing more time outside of required team activities if we truly want to be a great unit.’ We can talk about it or we can actually work towards it. So there’s been some progress towards that direction. We’re still not where we want to be, but we’re working towards it.”
One area where there has been significant progress is in leadership. The Gators entered camp looking for a leader, and one has emerged — Ivey, the former five-star recruit who was moved back to left tackle, his more natural position, in the spring.
“He’s taken ownership,” Davis said. “You can see purpose when he comes to practice, you can see passion in what he’s doing. He’s genuinely having fun. The cool part for us is the other guys in the room have embraced him in that role. There’s no resistance. His voice has grown. He’s demanding of his teammates and himself, and my job is to back him in that.”
Ivey and his O-line teammates are back in a little bit of a comfort zone now, quietly going about their business and staying out of the headlines.
It’s been that way since the Michigan mess.
“It hurt, it hurt, it hurt,” Davis said of the opener. “So what we did is we took that energy and tried to channel it in the right direction. Let’s not lick our wounds and feel sorry for ourselves. Let’s say, ‘OK, we’ve invested the work, but why didn’t we execute when it mattered?’ From that moment there has been growth, and it’s a work in progress. You’ll continue to hear me say that.”
Contact Robbie Andreu at 352-374-5022 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Also check out Andreu’s blog at Gatorsports.com.
Who: Vanderbilt (3-1, 0-1 SEC) vs. No. 21 Florida (2-1, 2-0)
Where: Steve Spurrier-Florida Field at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium
Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850