Quarterback, of course, is the position battle that has commanded all the attention and headlines from Florida’s preseason camp.
But, believe it or not, there may be an even bigger, more important, battle being waged on the UF offense at the moment. And it’s one that’s probably being overlooked by everyone except the coaches and players.
It’s the competition over who’s going to be delivering the ball to the quarterbacks this season.
Forget quarterback. Who’s going to be the starting center?
The Gators — and coach Dan Mullen — want to know.
Mullen has been stressing the importance of the center position in his multiple, spread offense and it’s a point he’s been driving home to the centers since the spring.
“Coach Mullen and Coach (John) Hevesy (are stressing) that the offensive line is going to go as far as the center goes,” redshirt junior Nick Buchanan said. “We have to lead the offensive line and make sure everyone is going the right way, the right direction. So, it’s on us.”
Said redshirt junior Nick Villano: “Coach Mullen tells us we’ll only be as good as the center position. Everything is on us to get everybody right, situated. It’s a big part of the whole offense.”
In Mullen’s offense — any offense for that matter — the center is pretty much the quarterback of the offensive line. He’s responsible for reading defensive fronts and making all the line calls to get the offensive line in the right looks and protections.
At the moment, the Gators aren’t sure who that starting offensive line QB is going to be.
There’s an intense competition being waged by Buchanan, Villano and junior T.J. McCoy.
It’s a crucial battle, maybe even just as important as the one between Feleipe Franks, Kyle Trask and Emory Jones.
“It’s really important to (Coach Mullen),” McCoy said. “He said that we’ve got to be able to snap the ball, make calls, and get the line on course.
“It’s really important and we’re all fighting for a position and we’re all competing. My job right now is to get the snap, and just encourage those guys around me to compete. And that’s all I’m doing right now is focusing on that.”
McCoy started four games at center as a redshirt freshman in 2016, then started the first nine games last season before injuring his knee in the South Carolina game.
McCoy may be viewed as the presumptive starter by many, but Buchanan and Villano also have been sharing reps with the No. 1 offense, and all three have an equal shot at winning the job.
“It’s very intense. Every day, it’s a competition. It’s tough,” McCoy said. “We’ve still got two more weeks of camp to see who’s going to be the starting center.
“I’m confident in my abilities. My whole job right now is to just make everybody around me better. That’s what I really believe centers should do is make calls, get the ball back there, make guards and tackles better, make the o-line better.”
McCoy has a considerable edge in experience over his competition.
Buchanan has played in only three games in his two seasons at UF, and they were all at offensive guard. He made the move to center in the spring.
Villano is a walk-on who has yet to play a down at Florida.
But Buchanan and Villano are solidly in the mix for the starting role.
After seeing only limited playing time at guard, Buchanan said center has turned out to be an ideal fit for him.
“It suits my ability, because more or less I’m a smarter guy on the field,” he said. “And the center has to know a lot about the offense and the offensive line.
“(The competition) is pretty intense. All three of us, we all come in every day ready to work, getting after it. Try to pay attention to detail and get the job done. It’s been fun.”
While Buchanan and McCoy are scholarship players, it’s been a tougher road for Villano. But, against the odds, he’s managed to rise from walk-on to potential starter.
“That’s why I came here,” he said. “They gave me a shot (walk on), I came here. I had to do my job. I did it. I just really focused every day to do my thing and work up in the ranks. And where I am now, I get a shot to start for an SEC program. I’ve just got to run with it.”
McCoy certainly respects his competition, but last year’s starter plans to reclaim his role as the No. 1 center between now and the Sept. 1 opener.
“I’m very aggressive. I love to compete,” he said. “I feel like my ability to just want to get after it (will make a difference).
“I love contact. That’s what I like about playing offensive line, and about my position. I try to play offensive line like a defensive lineman. Just always aggressive, always on attack. Instead of just blocking, I want to attack people.”