GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Martez Ivey was the SEC offensive lineman of the week twice, at two different positions. Right tackle Jawaan Taylor was a breakout performer as a true freshman. And redshirt freshman T.J. McCoy was a true surprise at center late in the season.
Those were the biggest positives for Florida along the offensive line this fall — and they were definitely positives — but overall the unit never found the consistent production the Gators were hoping for in 2016.
And all of those questions the group carried into the season now carry over into 2017, which was not the plan several months ago.
The Gators’ formula for success this season was pretty clear — when they could lean on their ground game to churn out yards and first downs and set up a selective passing attack, things looked pretty good. When they couldn’t, well …
The 31-10 loss at Arkansas. The 31-13 loss at Florida State in which the Gators went 0-for-12 on first downs. The 54-16 loss to Alabama in the SEC Championship Game. The offense combined for 70 rushing yards during those three lopsided defeats.
There were also games in which the offensive line earned warranted praise, stirring hopes that some figurative corner had been turned, but the positive momentum was never sustained.
Overall, Florida ranked middle of the pack nationally in yielding 25 sacks — but 19 came during the last six games — while the rushing attack saw its yards per carry average drop to 3.7 after those three stunting performances down the stretch.
Like the rest of the roster, there were injuries. Veteran center Cam Dillard, who was one of the steadiest performers up front, missed the last four games with a knee injury. Ivey, who mostly played left guard this fall, was hampered by an ankle injury the final two games. Left tackle David Sharpe dealt with his own ankle issue late in the season and Tyler Jordan, who started most of the season at right guard, missed time with eye and ankle injuries.
The equally erratic quarterback play only compounded matters at times.
Both issues need to be addressed if Florida is going to get past the offensive struggles that have too often bogged down the team in coach Jim McElwain’s first two seasons.
We’ll get to the quarterbacks at the end of the week, but as we continue our thorough position-by-position breakdown of the 2016 Gators and project ahead to 2017, here’s a closer look at the offensive line picture.
Let’s start with this. The Gators gave up more sacks in 2015 (46) than any FBS team in the country. That number was markedly improved this fall, and that counts for something.
Also, Ivey had some really nice moments, flashing the potential that had him ranked as the top offensive tackle in the 2015 signing class, according to the 247Sports Composite. Taylor was a beast at times, plowing over defenders to create run lanes. He’ll only get better as he continues to develop. And McCoy turned heads when he was thrust into action as a little-used third-string center after both Dillard and Jordan, who slid over as the backup center, went down with injuries. McCoy was the primary center the final four games and had some nice performances.
But again, overall, this was not the leap forward the Gators were banking on this fall from the offensive line — and consequently, the offense in general.
Star of the group
Sophomore left guard Martez Ivey.
Ivey started as a freshman in 2015 and went through the expected growing pains. At times this fall, though, he looked more like the player his 5-star recruiting ranking would indicate.
He was named the SEC’s offensive lineman of the week after wins against Georgia in Week 9 (as a left guard) and South Carolina in Week 11 (as a left tackle, taking over after an injury to Sharpe).
Looking at 2017
The good news is some nice foundation pieces are in place with more help on the way.
Sharpe, who started the last two seasons at left tackle but has been inconsistent, is contemplating whether he wants to declare for the NFL Draft and leave early.
If he does, Ivey slides over to his more natural spot at left tackle.
Between Dillard and McCoy, the Gators have solid options at center.
Taylor, who put together a highlight reel of demolishing blocks this fall, could remain a fixture at right tackle or move inside if there is a greater need. He’ll be a key cog wherever he lines up, though, and is a true building-block for future improvement of the unit.
That’s three spots that should be pretty solid heading into 2017, and the overall depth should be better as well.
Jordan and Fred Johnson, who opened the season as a starter at right tackle and later played a bunch of guard as a key reserve, have a ton of experience and some versatility. Kavaris Harkless also got some significant playing time this season as a redshirt sophomore. The key is how those guys continue to develop. And Antonio Riles, who sustained a torn ACL in the preseason, should be back in the mix.
The impact addition, meanwhile, is 4-star recruit Kadeem Telfort, who stands at 6-foot-7, 310 pounds and is enrolling in early January to get a jump start on competing for a starting job as a freshman. He spoke to SEC Country on Sunday about his intentions of making an immediate impact.
He was one of the jewels of the Gators’ recruiting class and could help accelerate the line’s development. A natural tackle, he also has played some guard in the past.
So all that said, there is at least reason for optimism that 2017 could bring significant improvement up front, but until it shows up on Saturday, that’s yet to be determined.
All recruiting rankings come from the 247Sports Composite.
Here’s the schedule for the rest of our position-by-position review with a link to the earlier installments.
Dec. 12: Special teams
Dec. 13: Cornerbacks
Dec. 14: Safeties
Dec. 15: Linebackers
Dec. 16: Defensive line
Dec. 19: Offensive line
Dec. 20: Running backs
Dec. 21: Tight ends
Dec. 22: Wide receivers
Dec. 23: Quarterbacks