Florida’s offensive line was close to a disaster in 2015. With just one returning starter and a mish-mash of players ranging from true freshmen to FCS transfers figuring prominently on the line, the Gators allowed 45 sacks, most in the nation, and mustered a pitiful 3.48 yards per carry, good for 119th nationally and worst by a Florida team since 19921.
So it’s potentially terrifying to talk about Florida’s offensive line — but, hey, look! Come back here! It’s okay! Calm down, jeez. We can actually discuss this without having heart palpitations. I promise.
We are finally at a point where we can exhale, and maybe even feel confident about the offensive line heading into 2016. Mike Summers will be leading a far more experienced group than what he started with last season, and he has a lot more timber to work with this fall. (I, for one, am excited to not hear the phrase "they’re one injury away" repeated ad nauseam like we did last year.)
When I watched our line play in 2015, I was perplexed by how they excelled in pass coverage at times, and how inconsistent they were in run blocking. It was almost as if they were two different units. I think this was mainly due to the fact we saw athletes without the drive to win every snap on our line. There are a few guys around who liked to get out there and scrap — Martez Ivey and Tyler Jordan come to mind. But you really have to have a (strange) desire to take position from defenders in run-blocking situations, when it’s not enough to just put your body in front of them.
That is where I think we need some younger guys to step up in a big way.
Fortunately, two guys stood out to me in the spring game that I think are worth mentioning, Richard Desir-Jones and North Carolina State transfer T.J McCoy. Desir-Jones, at 6’4" and a touch under 300 pounds, has the ideal frame of an offensive guard: He’s tall enough to stand up in pass protection, short enough to get good pad leverage in the run game, and athletic enough to get out in space for swing blocks and screen passes. He also played both ways in high school, and has a bit of a mean streak to him, something that has been missing from the line since Rod Johnson was sidelined with a career ending injury. I’m also getting on the McCoy wagon early after seeing his quick feet in pass pro and agility in zone run blocking.
His upside is intriguing, as is that of Desir-Jones, but you can’t survive on athleticism alone at these positions. It’s a position that challenges you as much as any other position from a mental standpoint. I would love to see these two push for starting spots, but even in year two that may be expecting too much. Offensive line play improves when the unit as a whole meshes well together, which is part of why we never see o-line rotations.
Martez Ivey missed Florida's spring practices while recovering from surgery, but he remains maybe the most crucial piece to the puzzle because he’s the most talented player on the offensive line, with nimble feet and extraordinary agility for a big man. He’s also the most versatile considering he can play tackle and guard at a high level.
I’d feel really comfortable with Florida's two former five-stars, Ivey and David Sharpe, being the Gators' bookends to start the season. Sharpe has always been more suited to play right tackle in my opinion, mostly because of the weight he carries, but I can see him staying at left tackle due to his experience.
But there's talent around Ivey and Sharpe, even if it's been more promising than productive thus far. We saw Jordan get thrown into the mix early last season, and he held his own in SEC play. I’d look for him to lock up a guard spot now that he won’t be forced to spell Cameron Dillard at center with the emergence of McCoy. There are other redshirt freshmen beyond Desir-Jones and McCoy — guards Nick Buchanan and Brandon Sandifer — who could push established starters, especially Antonio Riles. Fred Johnson looked more impressive than Ivey at times last season, but has seemed to hit a wall, with a less than stellar showing in spring.
Florida may be better off without Johnson in the starting line, simply because Ivey and Sharpe might be the line’s best two tackles at this point, but that might further stunt Johnson’s growth — and there’s no way he’s moving inside, as he’s just too big. That conundrum reflects one of the frustrating parts of offensive line development: The maturation process of a linemen can often be a long and uneven one. I wouldn’t count big Fred out, as he has all the tools to be a very good tackle, but waiting for a player to put it all together can result in waiting for something that never comes. (Remember Xavier Nixon, and — to a lesser degree — D.J. Humphries?)
Even if Summers can’t instantly mint polished products, though, there’s plenty of reason to have hopes that the line can be effective. Mac and company did a great job of masking the o-line's deficiencies last season, especially with Will Grier around to throw accurate quick hitters. But that need to patch up holes means that I don’t think we’ve actually seen the true version of the McElwain-Nussmeier offense yet; the brain trust had to tweak it so much to minimize the weaknesses that we saw a lot of small ball last season.
As Mac would say, "We had the governor on."
I would expect this line to be able to give more time to Luke Del Rio so Mac can take more shots down the field. And he's got the talent to make plays — if he can stay upright.
In 1992, Florida ran for 2.9 yards per carry — and went 9-4. Steve Spurrier: Okay at coaching football.