Oh My! The O-Line Is Looking Better

The O-Line prepares in front of QB Kyle Trask. Photo Credit: Chad Ritch

We remember that 88-yard touchdown run late in the fourth quarter by Lamical Perine that sealed the win over Auburn. It was a thing of beauty, just like that third quarter 75-yard touchdown run by Dameon Pierce that gave the Gators the momentum they needed to knock off South Carolina. We remember that perfectly thrown pass from Kyle Trask that Josh Hammond caught for a 34-yard touchdown that broke open a tight game on the road with Missouri in the third quarter.

Yes, we remember the spectacular runs and passes, but do we remember how Nick Buchanan got leverage on Auburn’s nose tackle and rode him down the line to create the crease for Perine? Do we remember how Brett Heggie and Stone Forsythe executed their blocks perfectly on the left side of the South Carolina defense to spring Pierce through a hole wide enough to drive a truck through? Do we remember how Richard Gouraige and Forsythe sealed off the left side so that Trask had all the time he needed to find Hammond wide open at the Missouri two?

Of course we don’t remember all the times when the O-line got the job done, but everyone remembers when they make a mistake. The O-line can deliver 10 straight plays but let them give up a sack or fail to open a hole on third and short and everyone points a finger of blame and screams for the head of the offensive line coach. While we remember Perine’s run and Trask’s 64-yard TDP to Freddie Swain against Auburn, people still talk about how Trask was twice sacked and stripped of the football by Derrick Brown. We remember when the Gators couldn’t convert short yardage runs against Georgia because the O-line couldn’t create a crease. We remember the mixup on the O-line in Baton Rouge which forced Trask to throw off his back foot, the result of which was a game-sealing interception by Derek Stingley Jr.

There is this universal tendency to give praise the guys who create touchdowns except for the guys on the offensive line who made it all possible. When things go badly, however, long boney fingers are pointed at them as if they are the only ones who failed to execute.

A year ago John Hevesy started the season with an O-line that had a collective 24 starts under their belts. That ranked 127th nationally, not exactly what you want when you consider going an entire season against SEC defenses. They had to learn on the fly yet somehow they blocked well enough for the Gators to average 33.23 points and 430.5 yards per game. The last time the Gators averaged more than 430 yards per game was 2009. Trask averaged 8.3 yards per pass attempt, the first time a UF quarterback has averaged more than 8.0 since 2009. He also threw for 2,941 yards and 25 touchdowns, again, the best marks by a Florida quarterback since Tim Tebow in 2009.

Although the Gators averaged only 129.77 yards per game on the ground, that wasn’t completely the fault of the offensive line. The strength of the Gators was a group of receivers that featured four who will earn NFL paychecks this fall and an all-interplanetary tight end in Kyle Pitts, who is back this season. Head coach Dan Mullen has always adjusted his offense to the personnel and that meant the 2019 Gators were going to be more pass-heavy. Despite the inexperience on the offensive line and going against some fierce pass rushing units, Florida gave up only 25 sacks, or one for every 19 pass attempts.

It is not making excuses for Florida’s 2019 offensive line when you use the term “work in progress.” They were a unit that started out very slowly but got consistently better as the season progressed. It’s particularly noteworthy that the 2019 unit had to adjust on the fly to a brand new quarterback when Feleipe Franks went down for the season with a dislocated ankle at the end of the third quarter of the Kentucky game. Franks added a different dynamic to the offense than Trask, but the O-line adjusted and allowed Mullen to play to Trask’s strengths as an accurate passer. While Trask carved up opposing defenses with his quick, on target passes, the O-line got in enough critical blocks to spring Perine (twice), Pierce and Hammond for runs of better than 60 yards and all four of those long jaunts came at critical moments.

Things should be better in 2020. For the first time since he arrived, Mullen and offensive line coach John Hevesy have the combination of experience and depth to call this a real SEC O-line.

“Much deeper this year than last year, obviously,” Mullen said Tuesday after the Gators finished practice. “My first year here we had a bunch of older, veteran guys – some guys who played some football – so I don’t know that our depth was great, but our experience in kind of that top group was really good. Last year’s group was really young.”

Youth and inexperience are a thing of the past. The Gators return three full-time starters (Heggie, Forsythe and Jean Delance) who combined for 37 starts last year. Also returning are two part-time starters (Gouraige and Ethan White) who worked their way into the lineup as 2019 progressed. Additionally, the Gators have three (T.J. Moore, Tanner Rowell and Griffin McDowell) who played in every game as reserves.

The Gators have four redshirt freshmen (Will Harrod, Kingsley Eguakun, Riley Simonds and Michael Tarquin) who know the system and got in games last year, plus there are three true freshmen (Joshua Braun, Richard Leonard IV and Gerald Mincey) who have great promise.

What should make this group infinitely better is the addition of Mississippi State graduate transfer Stewart Reese, who started for Mullen and Hevesy at Mississippi State in 2017. He brings 34 career starts to the table, most at right guard or right tackle.

“There are some talented young players,” Mullen said, assessing his O-line. “I mean, we only lost one senior off of last year’s offensive line and we had Stewart Reese transfer in as a grad transfer. So really that depth, the group that you played last year is back which creates a lot more depth on the offensive line. Plus, some news guys, so it is much deeper.”

What Reese brings to the table is immeasurable. He’s a mature 5th-year guy who already knows the basics of the Florida offense since foundationally it’s the same one Mullen and Hevesy were running at Mississippi State. Besides having a much shorter learning curve, Reese brings the kind of flexibility the Gators may need due to injuries and certain players possibly missing games if they test positive for Covid-19.

Reese played right guard for Hevesy in 2017, but he has starting experience at every position on the O-line except center. He’s a very intelligent player (kiniseology major whose goal is to be a doctor) who most have penciled in at left guard but could just as easily supplant Delance (last year’s starter) at right tackle since that’s where he started 13 games at MSU in 2018.

Mullen knows what the Gators are getting in Reese and while he won’t come right out and say the big guy (6-5, 345) is the key to improved play, it’s fairly obvious this is exactly who the Gators need to make the O-line successful.

“I think this, one, he understands what we expect in the program, so that’s not a shock for him, there’s no change there,” Mullen said. “It’s been two years since he has kind of run the system and we’ve tweaked some things, but I think there’s a lot of familiarity and he’s played a lot of football. I mean, a double-team is a double-team block, you know what I mean? If I’m on the lock-side of a pass protection, I’m on the lock-side of a pass protection. Even some of the stuff, I think it’s coming back to him pretty quickly, which is great and a little different than a regular grad transfer because it’s a guy who has played in the system before.”

The only missing starter from last year’s unit is center Nick Buchanan, who started 25 games in two years after three nondescript seasons prior to Mullen’s arrival. Replacing Buchanan in the middle seems the biggest question mark, enough so that Mullen says he is working five different players there in the preseason.

Because of his experience – he was a backup for Buchanan and might have been the 2018 starter if not for injuries – Heggie (6-4, 330, RSR) would seem to have the upper hand at center, but he’s played both guard positions and has a good bit of experience working beside Forsythe (6-7, 329, RSR) on the left side. White (6-5, 360, SO) is 40 pounds lighter than he was when he arrived on campus at UF. He played right guard mostly last year, but Mullen and Hevesy have him working now at center.

Hevesy likes to stack the middle of his O-lines with wide bodies that have good feet to counter the SEC trend of monstrous interior defensive linemen. Any combination in the middle of Florida’s line that would include Heggie, White and Reese would seem to be ideal based on what we’ve seen from Hevesy in the past. A freshman who could squeeze his way into the interior rotation is Leonard (6-2, 320, FR) who is a power blocker with good feet.

Mullen didn’t elaborate on the others he has working at center but the likely candidates are McDowell (6-3, 300, RSO), Rowell (6-2, 290, RSR) and Eguakan (6-4, 300, RFR).

Forsythe seems a lock at left tackle. By season’s end last year, he seemed comfortable both in the run game and handling speed guys coming off the edge. It’s hard to imagine that he won’t be back there this year. Who backs him up is a question that has to be answered but there are options including Moore (6-5, 310, RJR), Harrod (6-5, 334, RFR) and Braun (6-6, 335, FR). Braun seems to be the left tackle of the future but he will have to earn his way onto the field this year, most likely by starting out on special teams.

Right tackle is another story altogether since it was problematic last year. The incumbent is Delance (6-4, 313, RSR), who was adequate and sometimes quite effective in the run game last year. However, his struggles with speed guys off the edge were well documented and he will have to show major improvement in that area to hold onto his starting spot. It’s entirely possible that if Delance loses his starting job at right tackle he could be moved inside where he’d be taking on bigger, less mobile players. It is also possible that Delance could become the chief backup at both tackle positions.

The name most have circled to take over at right tackle is Gouraige (6-4, 300, RSO). After apprenticing at right guard, where he got starts last year while getting some snaps at both tackle spots, Gouraige seems poised and ready to start on the outside. That could change if Hevesy elects to go with Reese at right tackle. If that’s the case, Gouraige most likely starts at right guard, a place where he already has a level of comfort. Another name to remember at right tackle is Tarquin (6-5, 300, RFR), who was highly thought of coming out of high school and now has added strength and weight. This is another position where Braun could factor as a backup.

It’s almost a full month before the Gators strap it on for their season opener in Oxford against Ole Miss, so Hevesy has plenty of time to find a group he’s comfortable with. Hevesy’s history is to cross train as many as possible to offer flexibility in the event of injury. With classes on campus beginning next week and the increased possibility of players testing positive for the virus, it has never been more important to have players who can plug in and play at different positions.

It is critical for Hevesy to find a core group of about eight dependable players but eight can seem like several more when you have cross trained players who can play multiple positions. Reese has started at four positions. Heggie, Gouraige and White can play at least three each. Forsythe and Delance can play both tackle positions and it’s entirely possible Delance will move to the inside if Reese is moved out to right tackle.

By season’s end in 2019, the Gators were an adequate but not great offensive line. A year older doesn’t necessarily make you a year better, but the experience gained last year combined with the addition of Reese is cause for optimism. Instead of young guys learning on the fly, Hevesy has experienced guys who know what is expected of them and he has more depth than he’s had in his previous two seasons.

Another reason for optimism is the size and strength in the middle. Neither Heggie nor White at center would need as much help with nose tackles as Buchanan, a very smart and mobile guy who lacked ideal size (6-3, 292) to cope with most of the monsters in middle that you find regularly in the SEC. Also, a year ago, the Gators didn’t have the power in the O-line to consistently convert on short yardage or to grind and eat up clock in the fourth quarter. These guys should be able to grind out first downs and that will be a huge improvement.

Despite deficiencies in size, depth and experience in the first two years of the Mullen regime, the Gators have averaged better than 30 points and 400 yards per game both seasons. Those are the best offensive numbers since the Tebow years and they should improve this season.

There was this television commercial in the 1960s that made famous the line “It’s what’s up front that counts.” That might hold particularly true for the Florida Gators in 2020 because if the offensive line comes through in a big way, the Gators could supplant Georgia atop the SEC East and challenge whoever comes out of the West for the league championship.

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