Lost in the endless discussion about the Florida Gators starting quarterback is that other areas of the offense need to improve as well.
The running game was strong at home (5.4 yards per rush), but absolutely tanked on the road (2.4). In fact, the passing offense was pretty consistent from a yardage perspective (12.4 to 11.1 yards per attempt). There was a slight uptick in interceptions, as 9 of the 15 total came on the road or at neutral sites. But overall, it was clearly the running game that didn’t travel from Gainesville.
Jim McElwain acknowledged as much by hiring a new running backs coach (Ja’Juan Seider) and offensive line coach (Brad Davis) while allowing 2016 offensive line coach Mike Summers to leave for Louisville. While those specific choices may have been made more for recruiting prowess than coaching ability, major strides are needed on the field to return the Gators offense to respectability.
Who is to blame?
Florida has plenty of talent in the backfield based on recruiting rankings. Jordan Scarlett and Mark Thompson were both 247-composite 4-star recruits, and while sophomore Lamical Perine was only a 3-star recruit, he showed, particularly against LSU, that he has the talent to excel in 2017.
So that leaves the offensive line as the likely culprit. Football Outsiders tracks advanced offensive line statistics for Division I college programs. In the nine categories they track, the Gators’ average national rank has been 85.0 in 2015 and 67.2 in 2016. The improvement in that ranking comes strictly from the passing game, as the average ranking in passing categories for the Gators improved from 121.0 to 51.0 from ’15 to ’16 while the run rankings got slightly worse (67.0 to 75.3).
Why are the run rankings so important?
Football Outsiders data only goes back to 2014, so I looked at the past three years in the SEC East. I examined offensive line national rankings in rushing statistics, passing statistics, and overall. Then I compared those rankings to national rankings in yards per play and points per game.
What I found was there was very little correlation between pass blocking statistics and yards per play (R2 = 0.30) or points per game (R2 = 0.15) for those seven teams from 2014-16. However, what I did find was that there was a much better — though still not good — correlation between the run blocking statistics and yards per play (R2 = 0.56). Even more interesting, there appears to be a significant correlation between the run blocking statistical rankings and points per game (R2 = 0.75).
The implication is twofold. First, effective run blocking corresponds with moving the ball far more than pass blocking does. Second, effective run blocking correlates strongly with scoring. My gut feeling is that this correlates so strongly because red zone offenses are more effective with strong running games.
Florida’s running game fell apart away from home last season, and so did its offense. The offense averaged 32.2 points per game at home compared with 18.8 in road or neutral games. Based on these statistics, this is likely directly correlated to offensive line play.
Even more striking is that if all you knew about a team was its offensive line play, the chart below indicates you would have been able to predict offensive success in the SEC East.
The chart shows the average ranking of each team’s Football Outsiders run-game offensive line ranking in the SEC East from ’14-16 along with the average ranking in the SEC East for points per game. Again, there is a really strong correlation between points being scored and offensive line play here.
Tennessee and Georgia grade out quite well here. But as the game between those teams showed last season, their defenses were inconsistent at best. Florida’s offense and offensive line have been middle of the pack, but the Gators defense has been so outstanding that it has made up for the offensive deficiencies.
Offensive line play in 2017
But having a defense that can carry the team likely ends in 2017. Seven players from last year’s defense were drafted into the NFL. While their replacements got plenty of reps last year, the defense is only a few injuries away from having true freshmen in spots where they can get exposed.
The good news is that the Gators’ offensive line will be experienced in ’17. The unit is returning four starters, having only lost left tackle David Sharpe to the NFL. Martez Ivey will slide out to tackle, but the right side of the line should be the same as last year unless someone gets outplayed during fall camp.
The other things working in the Gators’ favor is the schedule. With only three true road games – and those against the bottom tier of the SEC – the offensive line is going to have an advantage in a majority of its games. Last season against Tennessee, Florida didn’t get any push up front and couldn’t stop Tennessee defensive end Derek Barnett. That was in large part due to the deafening crowd noise in Neyland Stadium. This year, that won’t be an issue.
The offensive line played well in spurts, particularly against LSU. But the unit also struggled with little mistakes that killed drives. Repeated false starts or missing blocks on well-designed plays happened far too often.
Which means maybe the biggest reason for optimism is the hiring of new offensive line coach Brad Davis. The offensive line wasn’t exactly tearing things up under Summers before McElwain got to Gainesville. Nor did his teams at Kentucky or at USC during his one year there.
Davis appears to have brought a new energy and certainly is saying the right things. At his introductory news conference, he said of Florida, “there’s no leeway to come here and be average.”
Gators fans couldn’t agree more.