On the fifth floor of the stadium, usually reserved for big money boosters and dignitaries, it was Media Day and there were plenty of Florida football players you could point at as being “It Factors.”
The quarterback. The corners. The wide receiver who has been given the honor of wearing No. 1.
But a day before the first practice of the year, I wanted to talk to the “If Factors.”
Because let’s face it — the “If Factors” could be the difference between a Top Five football team and a team not also receiving votes.
The offensive linemen have heard all summer — heck, since last January — about the biggest problem the Gators will face this season. And they are that problem, whether it is real or assumed.
Fortunately, on Thursday they wore their numbers so none of us were confused. In some ways, they are as anonymous as the members of Journey not named Steve Perry.
When the SEC media boys and girls picked their offensive lines for the preseason teams, they didn’t even sniff around any of Florida’s guys, not even the one returning starter in center Nick Buchanan. I’ve seen them ranked as low as 12th in the 14-team league.
“We want to prove everyone wrong,” said redshirt freshman guard Chris Bleich. “You see it in the media every day. We’re getting bashed as the weakest one so it’s in the back of our minds.”
The reason, of course, is that four starters are gone from last year’s offensive line, a group that started slow and finished strong. One thing about offensive linemen for the general public — if we haven’t heard of you, you must not be very good.
The truth is, these guys look the part and there is some experience among the starters. Guard Brett Heggie was a starter before injuries messed up his 2018 season.
“I had turf toe, then a broken hand and ankle injuries,” Heggie said, painfully reliving the season. “Last year was almost a wash for me. I played in nine games and seven of those I was dealing with something.
“I’m just praying for a healthy year.”
Then there is tackle Stone Forsythe, who looks a little like a slightly taller version of The Rock. He’s been around for four years and during that time has seen the field, but it wasn’t easy to dislodge Martez Ivey and Jawaan Taylor from the lineup.
“I got a feel for everything being thrown into the middle of games,” he said.
Kind of like the other tackle, Jean Delance, who played in four games in 2018, including the last three.
“I think the greatest thing they did was changing that rule to play in four games,” said offensive line coach John Hevesy. “It got them a chance to play in (games), whether it was four or five snaps in the bowl game, to just get in a bowl game to experience that type of stuff.
“The good thing is they have been on the field, not a lot of experience, but at least (won’t have) the shock of running out on that field from the sidelines for the first time.”
It was Delance, brimming with that pre-camp confidence that flows through all players, who told me Thursday that Gator fans can “chill.” (Yeah, right).
“Fans are going to be fans,” he said. “They’re going to be surprised when we come off the ball. We’re only going to get better as a unit because this is our first time playing together.”
Yes, and therein lies part of the problem. Last year’s offensive line needed time to gel. This year’s offensive line opens up with one of the better front sevens in college football (Miami in Orlando in case you haven’t heard).
And even if you can convince yourself that the starting five will work out just fine, the group behind them is so young some of their voices haven’t changed yet.
“I think we have some pretty good offensive linemen,” coach Dan Mullen said. “They just haven’t played a whole lot.”
In some cases, not at all.
So that will be the challenge for Hevesy and for Mullen to call plays around an offensive line trying to find itself this season.
Which goes back to the “If Factor.”
If these guys mature quickly.
If five guys can play as one.
If they stay healthy.
If Hevesy’s track record for developing young linemen can be sped up.
If they can believe even when the going gets tough.
“The biggest thing with all these guys is just confidence in themselves,” Hevesy said. “Have confidence in yourself and then learn to communicate as a group. Once you got the confidence in yourself — again I have the confidence in you, we’re putting you out there. We have the confidence you’re going to play, just make sure you have it in yourself.”
If all that happens, perhaps the line is not a weak link on a strong team.
“We know we’re young,” said Forsythe. “But look at the guys we have been practicing against. Cece (Jefferson), Jachai (Polite), (Jabari) Zuniga. We just don’t have the game reps we need.
“We have a chip on our shoulder to show what we can do.”
And a long line of people looking to knock it off.
Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at email@example.com. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.