The 2018 season began with a group of very talented guys on the offensive line that just didn’t really know how to play with, or for, each other. A unit that featured a former five-star recruit in Martez Ivey, just never lived up to the expectations set before them. That is, at least, until Dan Mullen and John Hevesy came along to teach them the Gators’ standard.
The results were evident as the season progressed. A unit that began the season by being manhandled by Kentucky’s front seven, finished by imposing their will on a talented (and No. 1 ranked) Michigan defense in the Peach Bowl. The same unit that allowed their quarterback to be sacked thirty-seven times in 2017, gave up only 18 in 2018. To be fair, some of that can be credited to improved quarterback play.
So what’s the point? Florida’s offensive line saw drastic improvement over the course of a single season. Largely, due to a higher level of accountability, strength and conditioning, and better coaching. We can look to last season’s progression as a sign of things to come.
The Gators are replacing four starters from last year’s line. In most scenarios this would be cause for great concern, and I don’t want to understate the importance of the development of this year’s unit and their maturation but things may not be as bleak as they seem.
Though the group lacks in-game experience, they are a very talented bunch with excellent football IQ’s. During the spring, many of the newcomers picked up the mental side of the system with alarming speed. Coach Hevesy said that the group was ahead of the curve in terms of where they should be in learning the system. This bodes well for them moving forward, although there is still much work to be done.
As the preseason approaches, the focus will be on creating depth and perfecting technique. The staff and, indeed, the veterans on the team will be applying plenty of pressure on this youthful group because there is no soft opening this year. The offensive line will be baptised by fire in front of a national primetime audience when they take on long time rival Miami in week zero. Apart from the pressure of the big stage, they will face a very good Hurricane’s defensive front.
With that in mind, here’s where they stand currently. Florida will return Nick Buchanan who performed quite well at center last year. He is the anchor to this unit and will be crucial to their success, as he will make the calls at the line.
At left tackle, Stone Forsythe provides a veteran, if not experienced, body. He is solidly ahead of redshirt freshman Richard Gouraige, who was expected to immediately press but never really showed that ability in the spring. The staff will need him to challenge for the spot, if only to provide useable depth.
Brett Heggie is the expected starter at left guard and played very well in nine games last season. If he can stave off the injury bug that afflicted him in 2018, he can be a big weapon for Hevesy’s group in 2019.
At right guard, Chris Bleich had a productive spring and showed a nastiness that coach John Hevesy loves to see out of his guys. He could end up splitting time at the right tackle position as well, with T.J. Moore filling out the rotation.
Finally, redshirt junior Jean Delance is slated to be the starter at right tackle. He is backed up by true freshman, Michael Tarquin, who has size in spades but may take a little while to develop, which is why there is an expectation that Bleich and Moore will be a part of the rotation.
As a whole, this group looks to be fairly solid in run-blocking, although they aren’t quite at the level that last year’s group was by the time the Peach Bowl rolled around. If they continue on the arc that they are currently on, we should see a unit that performs at a similar level by the year’s end.
The most glaring weaknesses at this point are slide protection and identifying the blitz. The only remedy for these issues are repetition and experience, which is why Dan Mullen will need to scheme around their weaknesses in the early going in a similar fashion to the way he negated the Miss State defensive front last season.
Wardrick Wilson and Deyavie Hammond are both expected to be able to push for immediate playing time this fall. The two freshman could end up replacing Ethan White and Michael Tarquin in the depth chart if they perform as well as they are expected to.
Ultimately, I expect to see a unit that is serviceable, not great, while they endure some growing pains in the early part of the season. Much like last year’s team, this one will get better down the stretch, becoming a formidable front for a very potent offense.