ATLANTA — For months leading up to last season, Jim McElwain hailed the offensive line as the strength of the Florida football team.
It didn’t take long for that claim to be disproved.
By the middle of the third quarter in the season opener against Michigan, it had become obvious that the UF offensive line wasn’t a strength but a liability.
The big guys were dominated, pushed all over the field by an aggressive — and obviously stronger — Michigan defensive front.
As the Gators found out that day, and in the days to come last season, that it’s hard to be a strength when you literally lack strength.
That was a big problem.
“You knew it when you were playing,” senior left tackle Martez Ivey said at SEC Media Days. “You could just tell people were stronger than you. It was kind of like, not intimidating, but why am I not as big?
“You’d see (recruits) come to games that you hosted on their official that turned out to be bigger than you. It’s something that blew my mind. The weight room wasn’t where it needed to be. I knew once we got a new staff in it was going to be different. We were going to change it around.”
That change has occurred. It is obvious, visible.
You can see it in the pictures players have been posting of themselves on Twitter.
You can see it standing next to Ivey, who has changed his body dramatically thanks to Nick Savage and the new strength and conditioning staff.
“I believe it’s going to help me tremendously,” Ivey said. “I’ve seen more change in the first three months than I did in the first three years I was here.
“I’m stronger. I’m faster. I’m bigger as well. That’s going to play a big part. As an offensive lineman, the weight room is key. That’s just going to up my game, our game, more.”
Ivey was the only UF lineman making the trip to Atlanta this week. But he said all of his offensive line brothers have gone through transformations similar to his.
They’re all bigger, stronger, quicker, in overall better shape.
“We’ve all benefited,” he said.
With all the physical changes, Ivey said UF’s experienced offensive line is ready to emerge as a legitimate team strength this season.
“I believe the offensive line will be the strength our team,” he said. “I expect us to be more physical up front. That’s for a fact.
“The O-line, D-line, I feel like we can take control of the game more now just by having more strength, more speed, more power.”
Add strength and power to the experience, and maybe the big guys up front have a chance to live up to the high expectations that they had no chance to last season.
The top six linemen — Ivey, Tyler Jordan, Fred Johnson, Jawaan Taylor, T.J. McCoy and Brett Heggie — have combined to start 106 games.
Ivey, Jordan and Johnson are all seniors who started games as true freshman.
“We have chemistry on the offensive line,” Ivey said. “I’ve been here four years, played four years. Tyler’s been here four years, played four years. Fred’s been here four years, played four years. Waany’s played three years. T.J. and Heggie have experience.
“Nick Buchanan has gotten reps with the first team at center. Jean DeLance works hard in the weight room and on the field. Stone Forsythe works hard. We’ve got backups pushing us.
“We’re all pushing each other to become better.”
The Gators know they have to be better up front if they’re going to turn things around offensively. Like every offense, Dan Mullen’s starts with the big guys on the line.
“To be successful you’ve got to be pretty solid up front,” Mullen said. “You’re not going to find a team that’s competing for a championship that does not have a solid offensive line. That’s going to be a huge part of our program, that line coming together, those guys getting used to playing with each other, the experience they have playing with each other. Their performance is going to be huge.”
There’s an obvious leader now on the offensive line. It’s the guy who showed up at SEC Media Days with a new, stronger body.
“Martez has done an amazing job since we’ve gotten there. He’s reshaped his body,” Mullen said. “When I talked to him, he’s healthy. He feels good about himself and where he’s at. And I’ve seen him work and improve.
“He might not be the most outspoken, vocal guy in the room, but he’s a guy that — when he made a decision to come back for his senior year, he’s a guy that has come in and bought in and done everything we’ve asked him to do from day one.”