Updated: Jul 10, 2020
(This is fourth in a series of position-by-position analysis of the 2020 Florida Gators)
“When fate hands you lemons, you make lemonade.” – Dale Carnegie
When Feleipe Franks went down with a season-ending ankle injury against Kentucky in game three in 2019, John Hevesy had lemons on his hand. The mobility that Franks gave the Gators at quarterback was expected to neutralize some of the issues with inexperience up and down Hevesy’s offensive line, so when he went down, Florida lost an important element to its running game because Franks’ replacement was career backup Kyle Trask, a pure pocket passer with very average wheels.
Instead of going in the tank, which many so-called experts predicted, the Florida offense flourished with Trask at QB. The running game took a hit – 129.8 yards per game in 2019, a dip from the previous season’s 213.2 – but the Gators threw the ball more and despite 103 more pass attempts, there was only a marginal difference in the pass protection. The Gators gave up 18 sacks in 13 games in 2018 (4.9% sacks in 364 attempts), but in 2019 they gave up only 25 sacks in 467 attempts (5.3% sacks). The Gators averaged 213.54 passing yards per game in 2018 (7.63 per attempt) but in 2019 the passing game was good for 300.8 yards and 8.37 per attempt.
What the numbers tell us is that Hevesy took his lemons and made lemonade. Sure, Dan Mullen would have preferred more balance in his offense but as he has shown through the years, he’s all about adapting the offense to the strengths of his personnel. Without a consistent run threat at QB after Franks went down, Mullen did what the personnel dictated and shifted Florida on the fly to a pass first offense.
The pressure was on Hevesy and his O-line to keep Kyle Trask upright with enough time to find open receivers and they didn’t let Mullen down. The Gators went 11-2, won a second straight New Year’s Six bowl game by whacking Virginia in the Orange Bowl in Miami and finished with their second straight top 10 finish in the final polls. In retrospect, this might have been one of Hevesy’s best coaching jobs in a career in which he’s more than once turned a rather motley looking crew at the start of the year into one that became highly productive by season’s end. By no means were the Gators a dominant O-line but they were good enough that Mullen was able to put together an offense that had the fourth-best numbers in the Southeastern Conference.
When the 2019 season began, Hevesy had only one returning starter on his offensive line – center Nick Buchanan – and just 24 career starts among his troops, which ranked 127th nationally in terms of experience. Buchanan has graduated but this season the Gators return four starters along with what could be the key to maybe the best offense seen at UF since the Tim Tebow years in Mississippi State grad transfer Stewart Reese (6-5, 350).
There will be no adjustments necessary to accommodate Reese, who Mullen and Hevesy recruited to Mississippi State out of Fort Pierce Central in 2016. Reese took a redshirt that first year and started for Hevesy as a redshirt freshman in 2017. In his three years on the field at Mississippi State, Reese started 34 games at both tackle and guard. Reese is already familiar with most of the Florida playbook and he already knows what Hevesy expects of his linemen. Reese already knows how to bulldoze defensive linemen in the SEC so this will be an easy transition.
In addition to experience and comfort with the offense, Reese gives Hevesy several options he didn’t have last season. More than likely, the big guy will start at left guard, teaming on that side of the line with Stone Forsythe (6-7, 329, RSR), who started all 13 games last year at left tackle. Forsythe constantly improved throughout the 2019 season and by year’s end was quite dependable both in the run game and in pass protection. At Mississippi State, Reese also started 26 straight games at right tackle in 2017-18 where he showed quick feet in pass protection. In 2019, he started six games at guard and one at tackle in a season marred by injuries. His ability to pass protect gives Hevesy the option of playing him at right tackle if last year’s starter Jean Delance (6-4, 314, RSR) doesn’t show marked improvement. Delance, who began his collegiate career at Texas before transferring to UF, started all 13 games at right tackle last year but it wasn’t pretty at times. He was an inconsistent run blocker and he had issues with speed rushers off the edge. Delance will have a chance to prove he’s considerably better than last year in August, but the pressure will be on.
The expected option at right tackle is Richard Gouraige (6-4, 300, RSO), who played mostly on the inside last year when he saw action in 12 games with five starts at right guard. Gouraige was a highly recruited 4-star tackle from Tampa when he came out of high school and right tackle seems to be his natural position. He played guard last season out of necessity. He’s still growing into his frame but has long arms and the strong hands it takes to get under the pads of defensive ends. However, if Delance has shown the necessary improvement, Gouraige could remain inside where he could battle it out with Ethan White (6-5, 360, SO) at right guard or he could even move to the left side to challenge Forsythe. White has enormous potential. He came to Florida with plenty of question marks, mostly because he tipped the scales at 400 pounds. By midseason White had lost 30 pounds and was given a place in the regular rotation. White played in Florida’s final six games and got a start at right guard against Vanderbilt. He showed particular promise as run blocker where his size and surprising quickness made him formidable.
Brett Heggie (6-4, 330, RSR) will move from left guard to his natural position at center. He was expected to take over in the middle in 2018 but his slow recovery from an injury in 2017 mandated that Buchanan would get the starting job. The key for Heggie will be to stay injury-free as he did in 2019 when he started 12 games at left guard. When he’s healthy, Heggie is that wide body Hevesy loves in the middle. Two years in the Mullen system means he knows the offense inside out so he should have few, if any, problems making the line calls.
There are experienced backups in T.J. Moore (6-5, 305, RSO), Griffin McDowell (6-3, 300, RSO) and Tanner Rowell (6-2, 290, RSR), who have combined to see action in 56 games, mostly on special teams. Behind them is an infusion of young talent that gives Hevesy the most depth he’s had at UF. He has redshirt freshmen Kingsley Eguakin (6-4, 300), Will Harrod (6-5, 334), Riley Simonds (6-4, 305) and Michael Tarquin (6-5, 290) along with incoming freshmen Josh Braun (6-6, 335), Richie Leonard (6-2, 320) and Gerald Mincey (6-5, 320). Braun, a 4-star recruit out of Live Oak Suwannee County, was originally committed to Georgia but was flipped to Florida just prior to the early signing date. It wouldn’t be a shock if he gets into the regular rotation at one of the tackles or even earns a start.
If everybody stays healthy, Hevesy should be able to redshirt at least two of the three true freshmen while breaking in the redshirt freshmen on the field goal and extra point teams. Ideally, Hevesy would like to have 18 scholarship O-linemen, but 16 is a good number if the Gators can avoid the injury bug.
SCHOLARSHIP OFFENSIVE LINEMEN (16)
Stewart Reese (6-5, 350, GR/TR) Stone Forsythe (6-7, 329, RSR)
Brett Heggie (6-4, 330, RSR)
Jean Delance (6-4, 314, RSR) Tanner Rowell (6-2, 285, RSR) T.J. Moore (6-5, 305, RJR) Richard Gouraige (6-4, 300, RSO) Griffin McDowell (6-3, 300, RSO) Ethan White (6-5, 360, SO) Michael Tarquin (6-5, 290, RFR)
Riley Simonds (6-4, 305, RFR) Kingsley Eguakun (6-4, 300, RFR) Will Harrod (6-5, 334, RFR) Josh Braun (6-6, 335, FR)
Richie Leonard (6-2, 320, FR) Gerald Mincey (6-5, 320, FR)
ASSESSING THE POSITION: Year three was always the target year from the time Dan Mullen took the Florida job in December of 2017. Two years and 21 wins later, Mullen has the Gators ready to climb the next rung on the ladder to greatness. To reach the championship level, which means going from 11 wins to 12 or more, Mullen needs an offensive line capable of grinding down opponents in the running game while reducing the sacks from last year’s 25 to 20 or fewer.
Through the years, Hevesy’s best offensive lines are always strongest in the middle. He likes three huge, mobile guys in the middle. Hevesy’s 2008 UF offensive line that featured the Pouncey Twins (both 6-5, 315) and Carl Johnson (6-6, 330) in the middle had the ability to punish opponents in the run game and their wide bodies made it next to impossible to get any kind of pass rush up the gut. A 2020 O-line featuring Reese and White at the guards and Heggie in the middle is monstrous – as big or bigger than any center-guard combos in the SEC – and they have the good feet to get out in front on sweeps.
The key figures to be Heggie. If he can handle nose tackles without needing help from one of the guards, the Gators should be vastly improved in the running game and far less vulnerable to pressure up the middle.
Reese could be called anything from the wild card to the missing link. He is the wild card in the sense that he could start at either of the guard positions or at right tackle. He could be termed the missing link because he brings size, experience and maturity. Team him with White, who showed surprising mobility even when he was still trying to drop some tonnage, and the Gators should have the kind of guard tandem that dominates in the middle.
The question marks will once again be at the tackles. Forsythe has to continue on the path of improvement that he showed last season. If he flatlines and has trouble protecting Kyle Trask’s blindside, Hevesy might be tempted to flop Forsythe to the right tackle and play Gouraige on the left side. Delance was the weakest link last season so he heads into August with the most to prove. More than any of the returning O-line veterans, Delance needed spring football so without those 15 additional practices, he enters 2020 as Florida’s biggest question mark. The wild card at the tackles could turn out to be Braun, who signed in December and early enrolled so he could get in most of the Orange Bowl practices. He has impressive size and strength, comes from a football family (his dad was an O-lineman at Army) and is the kind of high football IQ type that Hevesy loves. Don’t be surprised if Braun finds himself in the regular rotation by midseason at the latest.
If you only go by experience, Florida’s offensive line has the makings of a better unit than last season. It’s true that a year older doesn’t necessarily make you a year better, but as a group, the entire unit improved in 2019 almost on a game-by-game basis. Can they continue to improve in 2020?
Even though the Covid-19 virus interrupted the offseason strength and conditioning program, 13 of the scholarship linemen did participate in the mat drills and pre-spring workouts so the Gators should be physically more imposing than they were last season. The combination of size, strength, experience and depth is a reasonably good indicator that the Gators will be improved.
Good enough to help lift the Gators to the SEC East Division championship and perhaps to a win in Atlanta? The potential is certainly there and history says when Hevesy has experienced offensive lines with plenty of bulk in the middle, they excel. The Gators have no shortage of speed and talent at the skill positions so it is critical for Hevesy to put together an offensive line capable of getting the job done whether in the running or passing game.
Mullen is one of the more brilliant play callers in the entire country. Give him an offensive line that can dominate and he can deliver a championship-caliber offense. He might have exactly what he’s looking for in 2020.