Gators seeking more consistency in running game behind experienced line
For an offense that struggled so mightily on the ground last season, the Florida Gators still managed to produce some dynamic, game-changing moments in the running game.
There was the 88-yard touchdown run by Lamical Perine in the win over Auburn, followed two weeks later by a 75-yard TD dash by Dameon Pierce at South Carolina. Then, at the end of the season, it was Perine’s turn again, the senior ripping off a 61-yard TD run against Virginia in the Orange Bowl.
Co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach John Hevesy certainly would like to see more of those electrifying moments this season. But creating big plays in the running game is not his priority.
The 4-yard run is his priority, especially on first down. Four yards. Over and over and over again, establishing a consistent running game that helps set up quarterback Kyle Trask and the rest of the Florida offense.
“The big runs will happen, but I think the biggest thing for us in the run game is to be efficient, to get four yards on every run play,” Hevesy said Tuesday. “So it puts us in a second-and-six. If we're in a second-and-eight, to put us in a third-and-four.
“You're going to put us in situations where we have to be able to stay on schedule and be able to utilize our repertoire, use play-action with the run game. That's the biggest thing. We’ve obviously got great skill guys. To be able to use that play-action, the run game is going to help us with that. Without the run game the play action doesn't really help us too much. The biggest thing in the run game is just being consistent.”
The Gators never achieved consistency in the running game last season. The reasons were fairly obvious. Other than senior center Nick Buchanan, the line was young and inexperienced.
That inexperience led to missteps and missed assignments, which in turn led to an unreliable and inconsistent running game. That, of course, put all the pressure on Trask and the passing game.
Hevesy is hopeful things will be different this season. Four of the five starters are back and the Gators have picked up a ton of experience from Mississippi State graduate transfer Stewart Reese, who has three years of starting experience in the SEC.
“For me in the run game with our guys is finishing blocks, taking care of everything,” Hevesy said. “You go back and look at last season, just you're off a little bit on a lot of things. That was a major emphasis all offseason with the Zoom meetings. And going into camp was, here are the things we're off on that I think we've done a great job of so far in camp.”
Hevesy said the same linemen who made those little mistakes throughout last season have had a chance to identify those mistakes — over and over on Zoom during the months they were gone — and make corrections. The results on the practice field have been positive so far. The Gators will find out more about their running game in the Sept. 26 opener at Ole Miss.
“Obviously, they've still got to go out and perform, but you see the mental part of the game has really excelled for them,” Hevesy said. “Maybe it's just for six months sitting in on Zoom meetings. They saw enough of it to help them with that, so as you get into this that might be the best benefit of COVID, being on those Zoom meetings. They saw more film and more clips than they ever saw in their life, that you don't really have time for in a regular offseason."
Another encouraging sign is that leaders have emerged up front, led by senior tackles Stone Forsythe and Jean Delance and senior guards Brett Heggie and Reese.
Buchanan was the lone leader last season, a role that could be a burden at times with so many young linemen around him.
It’s a different setup this season. And another reason to anticipate the Gators having a more consistent ground game in 2020.
“(Reese) has started for three years in this league,” Hevesy said. “He can give the kids that haven’t played behind him even more stories (about how to get the job done). They can watch him because he doesn't have an ego. They can talk to him, and he'll talk, he'll give them everything he's got so they can learn from him, which has been great to have.
“Really, those four upperclassmen have become great leaders for my young guys. Now it's the young guys just obviously check your ego and make sure you're always listening to the older guys because they have the experience.”
Who: No. 6 Florida vs. Ole Miss
Where: Vaught Hemingway Stadium, Oxford, Miss.
When: Noon, Sept. 26
Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850