When asked at the commencement of spring practice just what leaps and bounds he expected the team to make in 2019, Gators coach Dan Mullen quickly pointed to the strength and conditioning program led by coordinator Nick Savage.
“I know everybody is excited to get back out there on the field to see some of the gains we’ve made, just physically. Hopefully we’ve made some good physical gains, a little bigger, a little faster a little stronger during the offseason program. Get back out and get back to work,” Mullen said March 11. “I know we had a good year last year. But obviously we want to do better. If we want to be better, we’ve got to work harder.”
Mullen’s message, broad as it may have been, might as well have been directed at UF’s offensive line, in the midst of replacing four starters from last season’s team.
And those next men up? Of the four offensive linemen the Gators added in the 2018 class, just two — Chris Bleich and Richard Gouraige — have been able to participate in spring practice. The margin for error is currently small when it comes to developing the new protection.
After 10 practices, it’s become clear that the 6-foot-6 Bleich, now in his second spring after being the lone offensive lineman to enroll early at Florida last season, has benefitted from the additional time on campus.
It likely won’t come to the surprise of Mullen and UF’s coaching staff that Bleich credited the strength and conditioning program with his development.
“It helped me tremendously. My strength coach, coach Tanner (Maher), he’s the one who usually deals with offensive linemen. He helps me so much. He always gives me extra work. Before class I always come in, he stretches me out and everything. It’s only going to get bigger and better,” Bleich said. “If you watch Mississippi State’s players you could just tell they looked huge and freakish. I know being under them, in a couple of more years, hopefully I will be like that, which I think I will.”
The experience of Gouraige seemingly pales in comparison to that of Bleich, despite the two essentially arriving at Florida just months apart. Gouraige, a 6-foot-4 lineman out of Tampa’s Cambridge Christian, opted not to sign with Florida during the early signing period after the departure of former coach Jim McElwain, therefore preventing him from experiencing spring camp prior to his participation in four games in 2018.
As a result, Gouraige didn’t know what to expect when the Gators reconvened in January for offseason workouts, and the 10 practices thus far have come with a learning curve.
“Developing my body with Coach Savage, workouts and stuff like that. Just learning with Coach Hevesy,” Gouraige, asked about his biggest adjustment since arriving at UF, said. “I came in the summer and we didn’t really have time, and stuff like that. This is my first spring. It’s been amazing. I’ve learned so much this year.”
And as he did with the 11 offensive linemen signed by the program in the last year, Mullen will spend the current recruiting cycle searching for highly regarded prospects looking to enroll early. Any unsure of the benefits can just ask Bleich or Gouraige.
“I feel like we’re progressing for sure. If you watch spring practice from Day 1 to Day 10 now, technique-wise, we’re all getting better,” Bleich said. “(But) we have to get way better, we have to take leaps and bounds. We’re nowhere close to being ready right now.”