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One year ago, the Florida offensive line did an outstanding job protecting then Heisman Trophy candidate Kyle Trask, who throughout the 2020 season threw darts to the human-highlight film, Kyle Pitts. However, the they were much-maligned for their inability to punch holes for a running game that ranked 96th nationally, averaging just 131.5 yards per game. 

On Saturday afternoon, Florida’s Big-Uglies pushed (arguably) the nation’s best defensive front around “The Swamp” to the tune of 244 yards and four touchdowns on the ground. In addition, the Gators’ pass-protection was good as well.  

“We had a difficult time stopping the run,” Alabama head coach Nick Saban said. “They (Florida) had 258 yards rushing. I don’t think we’ve had that for a long time. I thought their quarterback did a really good job of completing some passes when they needed to.”

Florida’s 1,007 rushing yards through the first three games of the season is its highest total in any season in the last 40 years. The previous high was established in 2009 when the Gators ran for 868 rushing yards in the first three games of the season.

Do you think Florida will establish a new high through the first four games of the season?

If so, they will have to run through a Tennessee defensive front which currently boasts the nation’s 5th ranked run defense. The Volunteers are surrendering just 54.7 yards per game. Tennessee impressively limited Bowling Green to just 32 yards on 23 carries and Tennessee Tech to just 35 yards on 28 carries. Meanwhile, two weeks ago, Pitt ran for 96 yards and two touchdowns versus the Vols. 

The Tennessee transfer portal looked more like a revolving door, spinning at 55 mph. Defensive tackle Carl Trembley arrived in Knoxville four months ago for his 6th year for college football from Southern Cal. Redshirt sophomore Da’Jon Terry joined him after spending two years as a reserve at Kansas. Both are expected to bolster veteran defensive line coach Rodney Garner’s group as reserves. The Vols defensive line boasts four seniors and two juniors, led by All-SEC pre-season (3rd team) DT Matthew Butler. 

The Vols lost All-SEC linebacker Henry To’to’o, but added four transfers for linebacker coach Brian Jean-Mary. Some were not available in the spring though. Texas transfer Juwan Mitchell should help at linebacker coming off the bench. 

How did the Florida offensive line group improve so much since last season?

Head Coach Dan Mullen wisely began spring practice in mid-February, roughly one month earlier than in 2019. The earlier wrap-up provided Strength & Conditioning Director Nick Savage more time to work with the group after the pandemic lockdown kept players off campus and weight room throughout the spring and early summer of 2020. 

Offensive line coach John Hevesy also has a veteran group to work with here. Eight offensive linemen have been on the Florida campus for three or more years, while Reese was a starter at Mississippi State before he transferred to Florida. 

Right guard Stewart Reese (48 starts), right tackle Jean Delance (28 starts), and left tackle Richard Gouraige (20 starts) played their best football in the Gators’ loss to top-ranked Alabama. Redshirt sophomore center Kingsley Eguakun has been especially impressive as a first-time starter this season. He has really opened eyes. 

Hevesy has proven that he can develop players. The biggest issue is that he has struggled to get elite talent onto the Florida campus. Offensive line recruiting has to improve if Florida wants to play their way into the College Football Playoffs and fly a National Championship banner in Gainesville. 

This group looks different than the unit we’ve seen the past two years. 

Physical. Bruising. Aggressive.   

And don’t forget this will be a night game in “The Swamp” with the Gator Nation in full force. You, the fans, earned high-rise from coaches, players, and members of the media as you lent your voices to the effort to knock off ‘Bama. There is no doubt that you’ll be fired up to annoy the Vols this Saturday night. 

Personally, I think Florida can run for 200+ yards against the Vols. The Gators should wear down the Vols.

Throughout the spring/summer, everyone understood that the Alabama game would to serve as the measuring stick for Gators. There was little doubt that the Gators offensive line, averaging 6’5, 317 pounds would have some success against unimpressive FAU and USF defenses in the run game. 

They flat dominated. And then they punched a talented ‘Bama front in the mouth for three-and-a-half quarters last Saturday afternoon. 

I documented eight plays where the Florida offensive line opened holes for the Gators backs. You can take a look at them here:

-The second play of the Gators first possession saw Alabama test Florida’s right side, which struggled last season. The Crimson Tide sent safety Jordan Battle to blitz off the outside shoulder of right tackle Jean Delance. The graduate senior handled the blitz beautifully. Alabama All-American linebacker Will Anderson Jr. beat right guard Stewart Reese on the play, but Jones delivered astride to tight end Kemore Gamble for the first down. The play was beautifully timed. 

-A few plays later, Florida faced a 2nd & 6 from their own 31 yard line when Jones optioned right and pitched the ball to running back Malik Davis. As Davis took the pitch, Delance and Reese threw a nice combination block on Alabama defensive tackle Justin Egboigbe. Delance quickly released and drove linebacker Henry To’to’o four yards back to the 41 yard line. The edge was beautifully sealed off by receiver Trent Whittemore, who threw a nice block on Battle. Davis was tackled by To’to’o, defensive tackle DJ Dale, and linebacker Drew Sanders, but only after he had crossed midfield to the Alabama 49 yard line. It was a beautiful run for 20 yards and a first down.    

-Trailing 21-3 in the 2nd quarter, Florida offensive linemen Kinglsey Eguakun and Ethan White combined to blow up Alabama nose guard Byron Young, while right guard Stewart Reese walled off Damon Payne Jr. creating an enormous path for Malik Davis to sprint 26-yards for the touchdown. Davis had only an Alabama safety, playing center field to beat on the play and he left the Crimson Tide defender laying on the turf. David rolled over sophomore linebacker Chris Braswell into the end zone for the Gators first touchdown of the game. Richard Gourage fires and locked down To’to’o, allowing Davis to go around the left end untouched and pick-up 15 yards to the Alabama 12-yard line. Wide receiver Trent Whittemore also had a terrific block on defensive back Jordan Battle. Unfortunately, Jacob Copeland didn’t attempt to block cornerback Jalyn Armour-Davis who dove, tripping up Davis so that To’to’o and safety Demarcco Hellams could finish him off.

-On fourth-and-one, White walled off Anderson Jr. as Eguakun blocked sophomore defensive tackle Tim Smith allowing Dameon Pierce to power his way into the end zone cutting the Alabama lead to 21-16. 

Return man Ja’Markis Weston dropped a kickoff in the end zone that rolled out of bounds at the one-yard line. Florida redshirt sophomore running back Nay’Quan Wright was the workhorse on a 99-yard drive after the Crimson Tide took a 28-16 lead late in the 3rd quarter.

“We did it the first two weeks,” Florida running back Nay’Quan Wright said of the Gators #2 ranked (nationally) running game. “We are going to just continue to do it, whether it is against Bama, Tennessee, LSU, or whoever it is. We are going to continue to run the ball, it doesn’t matter who’s out there. We are just going to put the ball down and run the ball. We did it the past two weeks and we’re really efficient, so we are just going to keep it going.”

-Right guard Joshua Braun overpowered Smith as while White sealed off To’to’o for Wright up the middle for a 30-yard run to the 49.

-On the 11th play of the drive, Jones called his number on a quarterback run over left guard for the touchdown. Once again, Eguakun and White combined to blow-up Alabama junior DJ Dale.  

-With ‘Bama clinging to a 31-23 lead, Jones delivered a pass to Whittemore just as Anderson is leveling him from around left end. The pass was a little low, but Whittemore was able to go down and get it. Eguakun had two ‘Bama defenders to block and went with the inside man.

-With 3:12 remaining in the game, Pierce later scored from 17-yards out to cut Crimson Tide lead to 31-29. The blocking was outstanding by the entire offensive line. Braun pulled from right guard and took out All-American Christian Harris on the play. Tight end Keon Zipperer and receiver Justin Shorter had terrific blocks on the play to aide Pierce into the endzone. 

Mark McLeod is a freelance journalist who has been covering the Gators for 24 years. His appreciation of all things UF began as a kid, when his Dad, a Navy veteran, was hospitalized at Shands Hospital. He saw the fantastic work they did while wearing the Orange & Blue. He also owns, Koda, The World’s Greatest Siberian Husky. Follow Mark @McLeodLive. Email him at Mark@BlitzSportsRadio.com

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