Stewart Reese: OL penalties unfortunate, moving past mistakes part of development process
Mid-answer, Dan Mullen’s mind went back to the penalties in Lexington.
The Florida coach had been asked how disappointing the loss to the Kentucky Wildcats was for his football program, and after Mullen admitted he took the loss “personally”, the SEC’s second-longest tenured head coach put the Gators’ miscues into perspective.
“You guys could probably check it: I don’t ever remember a game as a head coach where we've had 15 penalties in a game before. You know, I've coached a bunch of games, so maybe there's one skipping my mind out there, but I don't think I've had one with that many penalties before. That is disappointing for me.”
The 15 penalties for 115 yards were the most allowed by the Gators in the last 20 seasons, prior to Mullen’s ascension to coaching at the upper echelon of collegiate football.
Prior to Saturday a Mullen-coached team had committed double-digit penalties in a game just five times since the 2010 season, though he had never exceeded 12 penalties in a game. In Mullen’s first two games as head coach at Mississippi State in 2009, the Bulldogs were whistled 22 times combined.
Suffice to say, it was an unfamiliar sight for most on Saturday; to break it down further, 10 of the 15 penalties came on the offensive line, eight of which were false starts — an uncharacteristic sight for a unit that otherwise has exceeded expectations this season, as UF has rushed for 1,461 yards, its most rushing yards through five games in 46 years.
But for one offensive lineman, Saturday’s contest brought back memories.
Graduate transfer Stewart Reese, Florida’s starting right guard who arrived on campus prior to the 2020 season, was in a similar situation during his redshirt freshman season at Mississippi State.
“I’ve been in this league for six years,” he said. “I had the same situation happen to me, 2017 against Auburn.”
In that contest, the 3-1 Bulldogs traveled to Auburn for a battle between top-10 ranked teams, although MSU — led by Mullen and co-offensive coordinator/offensive line coach John Hevesy — had played a pair of true road games prior to taking on the Tigers and were coming off a demoralizing 31-3 loss at Georgia.
Reese, the team’s starting right tackle, lacked the experience he has now at playing all five positions on the line, and it showed that night.
The offensive line committed seven false starts, three of which were exclusively on Reese, and one was designated as a team-wide false start.
The Tigers would score 28 unanswered points in the second half en route to a 49-10 win, so Reese wasn’t as taken aback as his current teammates when it came to what unfolded under the lights in Lexington.
And he knows what it will take to not let it happen again.
“It’s not anything foreign. I think it’s just part of the experience of learning,” Reese said. “Once you go into a hostile environment, you have to be ready and prepared to roll with the punches, and adjust wherever you need to adjust."
Reese remembers those first experiences of playing on the road in front of a packed and hostile crowd — something a pair of starting offensive linemen in Kingsley Eguakun and Ethan White are still becoming accustomed to after the 2020 season was played in front of socially distanced crowds. The Gators have also rotated in several less-experienced players on the offensive line this season, including redshirt sophomore Michael Tarquin and sophomore Josh Braun.
The inexperience along the offensive line had an impact on the miscues, Reese believes, yet he doesn’t need to be reminded it’s a part of the maturation process.
“I feel like we were ready. I feel like once the bullets started flying some people got kind of flustered. That’s just part of the game. We have a lot of young guys and stuff like that. It’s just part of the experience for them, being able to learn and move forward from this game we played this past Saturday and learn what they needed to learn,” Reese said. “Once you get in situations like that, you really have to learn to focus in, like I said before, because any small thing could throw you off if you’re not focused. Something as simple as a shoe being untied and you having to come out of the game and having them deal with stuff like that. You don’t know what can happen at that point of the game.”
Like the head coach he committed to twice, Reese is practicing what he preaches — with the goal of improving, he points to his own shortcomings in addition to his teammates’ mistakes.
For Florida to avoid further self-infliction, Reese knows it will take some self-reflection.
“You just have to learn how to focus. That’s my biggest thing, being able to focus back in,” he said. “I think it’s just a matter of being able to mentally focus and stay focused in those types of situations and be able to push through and continue to play at a high level.”