We continue this week’s series of Florida Gators Top Fives for 2019 — which I told you would generally count down from No. 5 to No. 1 on weekdays this Monday because I knew there would be weeks like this one — with the No. 4 assumption about this season.
If Florida’s offense, spotty throughout this decade, has been consistent on any point in its good years, it is on the offensive line.
A good, hard-nosed offensive line paved the way for Mike Gillislee to rush for over 1,000 yards in 2012. An offensive line that allowed just 17 sacks in 2014 gave Jeff Driskel and Treon Harris ample time to throw — for better and worse. And last year’s offensive line recovered from a shaky start to the season to help spur an offensive turnaround.
But the other years? Those have featured some truly abysmal lines — and some terrible offenses, as a result.
Florida’s 2015 and 2017 lines ranked No. 118 and No. 128 — dead last — respectively among FBS teams in sacks allowed, and those offenses were short-circuited for long stretches. The emaciated 2013 Gators gave up “just” 27 sacks, but were also No. 108 in sack yards, and rushed for just 3.6 yards per carry. And Florida’s 2011 line managed to leave both its starting and backup quarterbacks injured by October.
And right now, at the outset of this 2019 season, Florida’s line looks more like one of those 2011- or 2015-style units.
The Gators will be replacing starting tackles Martez Ivey and Jawaan Taylor, the reliable and versatile Tyler Jordan, and the versatile Fred Johnson. All four of those players played in all 13 games for Florida in 2018, and only Taylor not starting a game that he played extensively in kept the foursome from starting in all 13 contests; each of four also made more than 20 starts in his Florida career.
That poses a problem for Dan Mullen and offensive line coach John Hevesy, whose track record of churning out lines that have been serviceable at worst will be tested in 2019.
The players around Nick Buchanan, who should return as Florida’s starting center, are not necessarily bad, nor are they good — mostly, they are unknown quantities. Can Texas transfer Jean Delance find a spot on this line? How about massive and aptly-named Stone Forsythe? Is this the year that the oft-injured Brett Heggie stays clear of malady and becomes a consistent force? Will any of the seven freshmen Florida hauled in on the recruiting trail contribute?
I don’t know, and my guess is that neither Mullen nor Hevesy does at this point, either. Mullen has strongly suggested that Florida is still looking for graduate transfer linemen who could play right away; Hevesy, who has spoken about needing six linemen he can trust, is probably not at that quota after spring practices, especially given a somewhat shambolic showing by linemen in the spring game.
And there’s reason for hope: Florida did start 2018 with an offensive line that basically got bullied by Kentucky, and ended it with one that could bully Michigan.
But if that magic, worked with experienced veterans and an NFL draftee, doesn’t recur? It could be the pain point for Florida in 2019.