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Florida reels in Jake Fruhmorgen, Clemson offensive lineman transfer

Jim McElwain’s excellent efforts to rebuild the Gators’ line have not gone unnoticed.

NCAA Football: CFP National Championship-Alabama vs Clemson
Yes, this is the only picture of Fruhmorgen in the photo tool.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Florida Gators bolstered their offensive line — for 2018 and beyond, anyway -- on Thursday, as former Clemson Tigers offensive lineman Jake Fruhmorgen reportedly decided to transfer to Florida, as first reported by Luke Stampini of 247Sports.

Stampini writes that Fruhmorgen picked Florida over LSU, and that the product of Tampa’s storied Plant High School did so partly to play closer to home.

Fruhmorgen was a sophomore in 2016, and started eight games for the eventual national champions before leaving the team in October and then opting to transfer in January. SB Nation’s Shakin the Southland wrote in January that Fruhmorgen also did not make the strides hoped for in his sophomore season:

Fruhmorgen had quite the roller coaster ride in his brief playing time this season in Tigertown. He was expected to grow in the off-season and provide us with a pair of second year bookends that would keep (Deshaun) Watson upright and clean, but also allow us to have an edge in the exterior running game. That didn’t exactly happen.

Fruhmorgen often struggled with more physical players on the edge in both the running and passing games. He was so bad at times, that after the BC game, Dabo even called out his poor play. Fruh came to Clemson as a highly touted player and after leaving the team mid season for personal reasons, is now electing to transfer out of the program with the initial destinations listed as either Florida or Michigan.

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney did, in fact, publicly call out Fruhmorgen after the Tigers’ 56-10 win over Boston College, saying that he “played awful” and calling his performance the “worst game he’s played ... ever ... probably since pee-wee (football).” But seconds later, Swinney would call Fruhmorgen “a heck of a football player” and say both “We don’t have a more talented guy than Fruh” and “(He’s) gonna be a great player, man.”

Fruhmorgen would play just two more games for Clemson, departing from the team after its win at Florida State on October 29 and after suffering a shoulder injury. Now, it seems, Florida will get to try to develop him into the great player Swinney forecast him to be.

Florida had its chance at landing Fruhmorgen out of high school, targeting him in the 2015 recruiting cycle, but Will Muschamp’s tenure ending and Clemson’s ascendancy under Swinney made the Gators an also-ran for the four-star lineman who played in the U.S. Army All American Bowl. It was also marked down as another miss for the Gators on a talented Plant product: Florida has had little luck with the Tampa school’s top-tier recruits in recent years, with Aaron Murray, Orson Charles, and James Wilder, Jr. all opting for rivals over the Gators despite Florida’s proximity to and success in the Tampa area.

But in getting Fruhmorgen now, as was expected by many, Florida may be landing a talented player at the right time for both him and the Gators.

Fruhmorgen will have to sit in 2017 barring an unlikely waiver of NCAA transfer rules, but should slot into Florida’s rotation at tackle — more likely right than left, but either side is possible — next year. That would make him a timely replacement for Martez Ivey should the Gators’ most talented lineman go pro after his junior season like left tackles D.J. Humphries and David Sharpe before him, or would make him a timely replacement for Jawaan Taylor should Florida’s hulking right tackle flip to the left side to replace Ivey.

Either way, Florida had to account for the likelihood that Ivey — a celestially talented lineman who has starred at left guard over his first two years in Gainesville, despite belonging at left tackle and dealing with injuries — will not be around in 2018. The Gators now have two veteran candidates to play left tackle if Ivey leaves — Fruhmorgen and Taylor — and will not have to rely solely on developing redshirt freshman Stone Forsythe or true freshmen Kadeem Telfort or T.J. Moore into redshirt freshman or sophomore starters or landing a big-time recruit after a “surprise” departure by Ivey.

That’s forward thinking by Jim McElwain, whose management of the Gators’ numbers at offensive line has been maybe his greatest positive change from the Muschamp era. Muschamp’s early struggles to bring in numbers on the line and a slew of injuries handicapped Florida significantly during his tenure, leading to patchwork lines and extraordinary circumstances like the 2013 spring game being turned into a glorified practice because of insufficient numbers.

Florida started transfers Max Garcia and Trenton Brown — both quality finds by Muschamp and then-offensive line coach Tim Davis — in the 2013 and 2014 seasons. But their departures for the NFL after graduation, Humphries’s early NFL Draft entry, and tackle Rod Johnson’s medical disqualification decimated Florida’s line at the moment McElwain was hired, making the 2015 spring game happening as planned — despite injuries that left the Gators with barely more than a handful of healthy scholarship linemen — a newsworthy event.

Florida had to scramble to find FCS transfer Mason Halter in 2015 just to avoid having three true freshman starting on its line — Ivey and fellow true freshman Fred Johnson were starters on and off in 2015 — and used converted defensive lineman Antonio Riles extensively at guard.

That sort of disastrous scrambling is probably not going to be necessary for Florida for some time to come. With Fruhmorgen in the fold, Florida could have as many as 13 offensive linemen with at least one year of experience under new offensive line coach Brad Davis on its roster in 2018 even if Ivey departs for the NFL. And while that number could certainly be whittled away by attrition or injury, it’s unlikely that enough will occur to leave the Gators with fewer than 10 returning linemen.

Those are very healthy numbers for a line that was decidedly ailing when McElwain took over in Gainesville, and his ability to identify and rectify the Gators’ weakness there is one of the best signs that he’s building a program that can compete for championships.