Florida's Orange and Blue game no longer contingent on depth of Gators' offensive line
Florida football's Orange and Blue game may have had plenty of memorable moments in the past, but the bar isn’t particularly high when it comes to the recent history of the Gators' annual scrimmage at the conclusion of spring camp.
Prior to the two-year gap in the event due to the COVID-19 pandemic, former coach Dan Mullen utilized former players — and made a joke at Georgia’s expense with the attendance figures — in each spring game during his tenure.
It may not have been the most advantageous use of Florida’s limited practice window, but it was entertaining nonetheless, and it was a sign Mullen respected the players who helped build the Florida program into what it has become.
And at least the event happened. As many may recall, the Florida head coach who preceded Mullen, Jim McElwain, had a much more difficult time in his first go-round in Gainesville when it came time to host a scrimmage for the public to behold.
David Whitley:Tennessee ups the NIL ante on quarterbacks
College Football:Here's what these former SEC players tell us about spring games
The Gators lost all of their starters along the offensive line at the conclusion of the 2014 season, leaving the team with eight scholarship offensive linemen, of which six were fully healthy. This wasn’t the era of the NCAA’s transfer portal either — there wasn’t much the Gators could do aside from rely on the players available, as well as several walk-ons making up the scout team. Help was on the way in the form of six freshman offensive linemen, including the highly touted five-star prospect out of Apopka, Martez Ivey, though that provided little solace at the time. The Gators moved Antonio Riles from defensive line to offensive line, a move that proved to be wise sooner rather than later.
Throughout spring practice in 2015, Florida’s offensive line coach, Mike Summers, joked that he could hardly watch when the team’s offensive linemen found themselves at the bottom of a play, knowing another injury could lower the team’s ceiling even further, as well as spell the end of UF’s hopes of hosting a public scrimmage in mid-April.
“Every time there’s a pile, I turn and look the other way and then look at the huddle,” Summers said. “With the numbers the way they are, we’re going to evaluate and look at every opportunity.”
Following much uncertainty throughout spring practice in 2015, the Gators announced that a spring game would in fact be held just two days later, even if the offensive line had to switch jerseys mid-game.
It wouldn’t be unfair to say the drama in the build-up overshadowed Florida’s two-hour scrimmage that Saturday, and it now serves as a reminder of how far things have come heading into Billy Napier’s first Orange and Blue game with the UF program.
Napier almost immediately boosted the depth along the offensive line, ensuring the game — and Florida’s ability to execute its offense in 2022 — wouldn’t be in doubt.
O’Cyrus Torrence, Kamryn Waites join Gators
The Gators brought in a pair of offensive linemen from Louisiana in O’Cyrus Torrence and Kamryn Waites to shore up a unit tasked with replacing a pair of starters from last season’s team in Jean Delance and Stewart Reese. The two have stood out frequently, in more ways than one.
“Kam’s a freak. Kam is, that’s a big dude. I thought we had some big dudes with, you know, Stone and Des, but Kam’s like those two put together,” UF offensive lineman Ethan White said of Waites, a redshirt freshman who’s listed at 6-foot-8, 358 pounds. “He’s massive. He can move, too. He’s freaky.”
Napier also prioritized the position when it came to his coaching staff, choosing to hire two offensive line coaches with significant NFL experience in Rob Sale and Darnell Stapleton.
After 13 spring practices, weekly walkthroughs and an abundance of meetings, Florida’s offensive line room under Napier now is a far cry from how the room has looked in the not-so-distant past.
“They're a hard-working group. Coming in, you always kind of try to feel a group out. These guys, they put their head down, they go to work,” Stapleton said of Florida’s offensive line. “They want to be pushed, they want to be challenged, and that's what we like about them.”
Not to take anything away from Florida’s student-athletes, but Stapleton said the unit’s play is a reflection of the position coach. It’s a trickle-down effect in a sense, from a Super Bowl winner to those hoping to win one of their own.
“Every day, we come and we set a tone and a tempo. I think our attitude as coaches rubs off on them: no-nonsense. We're gonna try to be bullies in the right way, be physical upfront,” Stapleton said, “and these guys, they have rose to that challenge of being sound both mentally and physically. So I've enjoyed working with these guys so far.”
He knows what it takes to make it against the odds.
Darnell Stapleton joined Steelers in 2007
Stapleton joined the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2007 as an undrafted free agent, though he was inactive for every game during his rookie season despite making the 53-man active roster. Stapleton was once again a reserve during his first four games of his second season in the NFL, but injuries are a common occurrence in football, and soon the player starting in front of Stapleton at right guard, Kendall Simmons, was lost for the season, which put the Steelers’ hopes of competing in jeopardy.
Stapleton stepped in and started the final 12 games of the regular season, as well as all the team’s first two playoff games to reach Super Bowl XLIII. There, Stapleton helped the Steelers to a four-point win over the Arizona Cardinals in a game that was ranked No. 1 by NFL Network in the network’s "Top 10 Super Bowls" program.
It wasn’t the path he dreamed for himself — a knee injury ended Stapleton’s playing career just months later — but it was a worthwhile one nonetheless.
“It was a road that most don’t take as an undrafted free agent. Making a roster as an undrafted free agent is not the way most offensive linemen make it," he said. “But I was very fortunate and blessed to take advantage of opportunities that were afforded to me. And when you give me an opportunity, I’m going to make it count.”
The Super Bowl ring doesn’t come out often — at least, not for current players.
“I may use it at some time in recruiting,” Stapleton said. “But at the end of the day, I don't think that's gonna win us any games.”
It’s a hands-on approach rather than what’s on Stapleton’s hands that is expected to push Florida’s offensive line to a higher level under Napier. With double-digit offensive linemen to fine-tune and push, Stapleton believes one voice in the room isn’t enough for each player to get the necessary amount of attention. Both he and Sale have to work collectively, and often in sync. From someone who’s been there before and done what many dream of, hearing the message from one voice isn’t as effective as hearing the message echoed by another coach in the room.
“It's also that two sets of eyes are better than one, two brains are better than one,” Stapleton said. "... As long as we get our guys to go out there and play and understand exactly what we're trying to get done, we’re being successful.”
The approach has Florida in a desirable position: in the midst of progress. The numbers overall may still be lacking, but the Gators have made certain those in the building at the offensive line position have the resources necessary to further their development — and participate in a spring game.
Then, when the lights turn off Thursday, Sale and Stapleton can shift focus to finding the next linemen to develop in Gainesville.
“As many (offensive linemen) as you give me, that would be my number. I don't want to put a cap on it. And, again, I think that's what you got to create: you create an atmosphere where everybody believes there's a chance,” Stapleton said. “Once there's no hope in the room, then they stop working. When everybody has the mindset like, ‘Hey, I got a chance to contribute to this 2022 team.’ They're gonna go out there and work. Everybody's fighting for a starting job.”
What: Orange and Blue game
Where: Ben Hill Griffin Stadium
When: 7:30 p.m., gates open at 6 p.m.
TV: SEC Network+