A Promising Beginning for the Florida Gators Offensive Line

Jean Delance (56) and the offensive lineman dominated in the opener. Photo Courtesy: SEC, Credit-Courtney Culbreath

It will take more than one game to get an accurate read on just how much Florida’s offensive line has improved since last season but what happened in Oxford offers hope that the trials and tribulations of last season are in the rearview mirror. John Hevesy’s offensive line struggled at times last year, largely due to inexperience (Gators ranked 127th out of 130 Division I teams in experience on the O-line at the outset of 2019) but with three full-time starters, two part-time starters and three who saw action on special teams inexperience is no longer a problem. Solidifying the O-line is Mississippi State grad transfer Stewart Reese, who has three years as a starter and has experience at every position except center.

Expectations for improvement are very high this season and game one offered hope that 2020 will see a year when the O-line’s struggles are a thing of the past. In Florida’s 51-35 season-opening win over Ole Miss, the offensive line was far from perfect but the positives easily outweigh the few negatives.

When evaluating the play of an offensive line there are four key stats that generally indicate effectiveness:

(1) Rushing yards per attempt. Anything below 4.0 is horrible. 4.0 to 4.5 is at the low end of average. 4.6 to 5.0 is good. 5.1 to 5.5 is excellent. Anything above 5.5 is a sign that the offensive line is beating people up.

(2) Passing yards per attempt. Anything below 6.0 is abysmal. 6.0 to 6.7 is at the low end of average and a sign of either a dink and dunk offense or a QB who has to unload because his O-line can’t hold back the rush. 6.8 to 7.5 is pretty good. 7.6 to 8.4 is a sign of a very effective passing game. Anything above 8.5 means the QB usually has all the time he needs to get the ball downfield.

(3) Average yards per offensive play. Anything below 5.0 is disastrous. 5.0 to 5.5 is at the very low end of average. 5.6 to 6.0 means the O-line is holding its own. 6.1 to 6.5 is ideal. Anything above 6.5 means the offense is explosive and the O-line is getting the job done.

(4) Sacks allowed. Anything more than 2.3 sacks per game is very bad. 2.0 to 2.3 is at the low end of average. 1.6 to 2.2 sacks isn’t ideal but you can live with it. 1.0 to 1.5 sacks per game means the O-line knows how to protect. Anything less than 1.0 is a coach’s dream.

So how did the Gators do in their first game against Ole Miss?

The Gators ran for 196 yards while averaging 6.76 yards per attempt. Factored in that total was an explosive play of 50 yards by Kadarius Toney. If you go back to 2019, the Gators had only two games with more than 200 yards and none of them were against a Southeastern Conference opponent. The Gators ran for 231 against D1AA UT-Martin and 244 against Virginia of the ACC in the Orange Bowl. The Gators averaged 6.08 against UT-Martin, 7.18 against Virginia. There were only seven games (out of 13) in which the Gators averaged as much as 4.0 per carry and for the season UF averaged only 4.24, not very impressive.

The Gators had four explosive runs in 2019 – a 76-yard run by Josh Hammond against Kentucky, an 88-yard run by Lamical Perine against Auburn, a 75-yard run by Dameon Pierce against South Carolina and a 61-yard run by Perine against Virginia in the Orange Bowl. Take those four long runs out of the equation and the Gators averaged just 3.52 yards per carry. Take Toney’s 50-yard run out of the Ole Miss equation last Saturday and the Gators still averaged 5.21 yards per carry.

The 196 yards lead the SEC after one week and the 6.76 yards per carry are second only to Texas A&M which averaged 6.78.

Yards per pass attempt is the single most important passing stat since it’s a true indicator of a quarterback’s willingness to throw the ball down the field on a consistent basis. Tim Tebow averaged 9.2 yard per attempt in 2009. From 2009-2018, John Brantley in 2011 was the only Florida quarterback to average at least 8.0 per attempt (Brantley averaged 8.5 with Charlie Weis calling the plays). The year before Dan Mullen arrived at UF, Feleipe Franks averaged 6.3 yards per attempt. In 2018, Franks’ first year under Mullen, those numbers jumped to a respectable 7.6 yards per attempt. At the time he went down with a dislocated/fractured ankle in game three of 2019, Franks was averaging 9.8 per attempt.

Kyle Trask took over under adverse circumstances so averaging 8.3 per attempt and throwing for 2,941 yards, the most of any Florida QB since Tebow’s Heisman season of 2007 (3,286 yards) is remarkable. Tebow went over the 3,000-yard mark in 2007 while starting all 13 Florida games. Trask got his in 10 games and one quarter.

Against Ole Miss last week, Trask was 30-42 passing (71.4%) for 416 yards and six touchdowns. The six TDPs are the most of any Florida quarterback in history against an SEC opponent. It was the first time Trask has thrown for more than 400 yards in his career and the 416 are ninth on Florida’s all-time list. With five games with more than 300 passing yards in his 11 games as the Gators’ starting quarterback, Trask is tied with Tim Tebow (41 career starts) for seventh on the UF list for most 300-plus games.

Trask averaged 9.9 yards per attempt against Ole Miss. Add in the 30 yards by backup Emory Jones and the Gators threw for 446 yards, finishing the game with a 9.9 average per attempt as a team.

Total offense yardage can be deceiving because some teams use every second of the play clock as a defensive weapon. If the other team doesn’t have the ball, they can’t score is the theory behind slow play, so the better indicator of efficiency, both of the offense and the O-line is yards per play. In 2009, the Gators averaged an outstanding 6.97 per play in Tebow’s senior year and that was without the explosiveness Percy Harvin added to the offense. There was little in the way of explosiveness from 2010-17, evidenced by no season averaging at least 5.5 per play and five seasons of 5.19 or less. In 2013 the Gators averaged just 4.79 per play, which has everything to do with a 4-8 record and only 18.8 points per game.

In Mullen’s first year on the job, the Gators improved from the 5.19 yards per play of 2017 to a very healthy 6.23. The Gators improved to 6.47 per play in 2019 and that was without the benefit of a consistent running game. In so many ways, the passing game became the running game as Mullen made sure the ball got out of Trask’s hands quickly. There were downfield throws but emphasis was on the short, quick passes to negate pass rush and to take advantage of a wide receiving corps that was more than willing to take on blocking assignments.

Against Ole Miss, the Gators averaged an eye-opening 8.68 yards per play. The combination of a very good running game and Trask finding 11 different receivers carved up the Ole Miss defense. The running game got better as the game wore on as the offensive line got into a rhythm and began to dominate. The passing game was a solid mixture of the short quick stuff and going over the top downfield. Trask found Kyle Pitts on touchdown passes of 71, 16 and 17 yards, Trevon Grimes for a 16-yard TD and Toney for another TD of 16 yards. All those were downfield throws when Trask had time to throw thanks to adequate blocking by his O-line. This was a day when almost everything Mullen dialed up worked. Whether throwing the ball or running it, the O-line consistently got the job done.

Kyle Trask hugs Kadarius Toney after a TD. Photo Courtesy: SEC, Credit—Courtney Culbreath

At the end of the Ole Miss game, Trask’s uniform was very clean. Ole Miss got to him just once for a three-yard loss. In the first half the Rebels got some pressure a few times by rushing more players than the Gators had blockers, but Trask was able to move in the pocket and get his throws off.

One sack allowed in 45 pass attempts is a number Hevesy can live with. Early on when Ole Miss was throwing all these blitz packages at the Gators, the O-line wasn’t completely in synch but Hevesy made halftime adjustments and there were very few occasions in the second half when there was a missed assignment. Much of the credit for the adjustments has to go to center Brett Heggie, who earned Southeastern Conference Offensive Lineman of the Week kudos by grading out champion.

Brett Heggie (61) was named SEC Offensive Lineman Of the Week. Photo Courtesy: SEC, Credit-Courtney Culbreath

In 2018 the Gators gave up 18 sacks in 13 games, a drastic improvement over 2017 when they allowed 37 sacks in the 11-game final season of the Jim McElwain era. Although that number increased to 25 sacks allowed (again in 13 games) in 2019, remember Hevesy had only one returning starter and just 24 career starts among his entire unit. This year with so much more experience, the addition of Reese and the expected quick return of last year’s part-time starter Ethan White, the pass protection should be better than it has been any time in the last decade.

This is only one game and it was against an Ole Miss defense that struggled far too often the year before. But, the Rebels do have former UF coordinator and Maryland head coach calling the defense so they are actually improved over where they were last year although the first game stats are very bad from their standpoint. So look at what the Gators did in game one with cautious optimism. On paper, Florida has an improved offensive line from the year before. On paper they should be far better in their run blocking, particularly when White gets healthy to give them a threesome in the middle of Heggie (6-4, 321), Reese (6-6, 350) and White (6-5, 335). Hevesy likes those hulks in the middle to open things up in the running game.

The question that has to be answered is in pass blocking off the edge. Ole Miss had no consistent edge rushers and was forced to resort to blitz packages to try to get to Trask. At some point the Gators will face a team that has strong edge rushers to go with blitz packages. Stone Forsythe (6-9, 312) at the left tackle seems to improve every game. Right tackle Jean Delance (6-5, 315) was often dazed and confused as the starter in 2019 but he improved enough in the offseason that Hevesy went with him in game one. Can he continue to get the job done? If he can’t Hevesy has the advantage of either shifting Reese or Richard Gouraige (6-5, 316) outside. Reese started at right tackle for a good portion of his Mississippi State career and has the advantage of a year as a starter for Hevesy in 2017. Gouraige has started at both guard and right tackle. With White out with a minor knee injury, Gouraige is starting at guard but when White returns, Hevesy could move him to right tackle or elect to keep him at guard while moving Reese out there.

If the Gators can handle the pass blocking element, the offense could easily be the most explosive since the days of Tebow and Percy Harvin. The talent is there for a much improved unit in 2020. If they can do their part, the Gators are going to have a very good chance to win the SEC East and perhaps even the SEC title.

One game is not a good enough barometer to predict championships but it is enough to offer hope. There is that old saying “It’s what’s up front that counts.” If what’s up front for the Gators play at a high level in the next nine games, Florida could be punching a ticket for Atlanta.

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