Florida offensive line quietly getting job done
While Kyle Trask and his receivers and running backs have been making all those plays, scoring all those points and making all that joyful noise with their high-octane antics, the big guys up front have been content to remain in the background — and out of the headlines.
That it is this way this season says one thing about the Florida offensive line.
It is doing its job.
The line has quietly become a team strength.
“Those guys are playing really well,” UF offensive coordinator Brian Johnson said. “John (Hevesy) does a great job getting them ready to play. A lot of them have played a lot of football for us, and so they're playing with a ton of confidence and understanding the game plan, understanding what we're trying to accomplish. Playing physical and knocking people off the ball and doing a great job in pass protection as well.”
It’s a lot different than last year, when the offensive line was making headlines — for all the wrong reasons. The Gators struggled with consistency in pass protection and were getting little or no push in the running game, which led to UF basically not having a running game, and there was an overall lack of physicality.
This year’s line, anchored by four senior starters, has been solid all the way around, giving Trask and those playmakers the opportunity to make all those plays and score all those points every Saturday.
The big guys are getting a consistent (and physical) push in the running game and giving Trask time to go through his progressions and manage the offense at such a high level. The line has given up only six sacks in six games.
“Our offensive line is just doing a great job of just communicating, and everything’s really clicking for them right now,” Trask said. “They’re a very tight-knit group and they do a great job of talking to each other and giving each other feedback throughout the game, and also giving me feedback of what the d-line is looking like and what kind of checks I can make to slide the protection correctly.
“I just think it all comes down to execution. If we do a great job of that we should be able to run the ball and pass-protect very well.”
The improvement from a year ago has been substantial, and it can be traced to four key factors: experience, Brett Heggie’s move from guard to center, the addition of graduate transfer Stewart Reese and the emergence of Stone Forsythe as a potential elite left tackle.
So, let’s start in the middle, at center, the position Dan Mullen calls the most important on the offensive line. Heggie, the former guard, has turned out to be an ideal fit with his combination of physical strength and intelligence.
“It’s been huge,” Johnson said of Heggie’s move to center. “He does a great job directing traffic and getting things set at the line of scrimmage. He just brings that experience. He can talk to both sides of the offensive line pre-snap and really just direct traffic and make sure we’re on the right guys.”
If center is the most critical position up front, then left tackle is the second most because the left tackle is the one protecting the quarterback’s blind side. With the way Forsythe has been playing so far this season, Trask has not had to spend a lot of time looking over his left shoulder anticipating heavy pressure.
“I think just his natural understanding of defense and giving yourself a chance before the ball is even snapped, understanding what moves you’re going to get,” Johnson said of Forsythe. “Where’s your help? Where’s your leverage? Just really studying your opponent and your guys and what they like to do and how you can use your technique to defend what they’re trying to do to you. He’s done a great job. He’s had a fantastic year.
“In this league you have so many dynamic pass rushers, and when you have a guy who you’re not concerned about leaving one-on-one on the line for as much as we throw the football, it’s definitely a huge positive.”
Forsythe and Heggie are two of the four seniors. The others are right tackle Jean Delance and left guard Reese, who has brought great size (6-foot-6, 350 pounds) and physicality to the interior line.
The experience of the four seniors has been a big factor in the turnaround up front this season.
“We’ve got a lot of guys (on the line) that have been in this system now for three years,” Johnson said. “And they are at a graduate level in terms of understanding the offense. They’ve learned some of the tricks of the trade.”
And going about it very quietly, very efficiently.
Who: No. 5 Florida (5-1) vs. Vanderbilt (0-6)
When: 12 p.m.
Where: Vanderbilt Stadium, Nashville, Tenn.
Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850