GAINESVILLE, Fla. — After its first offensive play Saturday, Florida was already down a second starting lineman and on to its little-used third-string center. By the end of the first half, the Gators were down three starters up front.
The offensive line was so reshuffled that quarterback Austin Appleby, who has spent most of the season as a backup, joked that it actually looked more familiar for him with his fellow second-teamers and reserves in front of him.
“I’ve been with the 2s the entire spring camp and the entire fall camp. So those were my dudes. I’m actually kind of more comfortable with them,” he quipped. “… But those are my guys, step in and go play. Just go relax and go play. When T.J. (McCoy) came in there, he kind of got the look. I’m like, ‘Hey man, go do what we do.’ And we settled in, same with (Kavaris) Harkless and some others.
“We just go play football the Gator way. We’re so deep. We’ve got so much talent on this team that it doesn’t matter who’s out there. If we play to our standard, we’ll be successful.”
That’s a nice sentiment, but Florida hasn’t always been successful on offense even with its full complement of starting linemen, so the protection and blocking Saturday was especially notable given the missing personnel.
In all, the Gators saw nine starters go down to injury the last two games. Quarterback Luke Del Rio (shoulder), center Cam Dillard (knee), linebackers Alex Anzalone (broken arm) and Jarrad Davis (ankle) and defensive end CeCe Jefferson (foot) missed the game Saturday. And then Tyler Jordan, who had slid over from right guard to fill in at center, hurt his ankle on that first offensive play, left tackle David Sharpe (ankle) later exited as well, defensive end Bryan Cox Jr. (ankle) also departed and safety Marcus Maye sustained a season-ending broken arm.
Florida coach Jim McElwain didn’t provide any other specific injury updates after the game, but he made sure to highlight the guys who stepped into bigger roles Saturday — especially up front.
Redshirt freshman T.J. McCoy, who has seen minimal action this season, was pressed into action at center, sophomore left guard Martez Ivey slid over to tackle and Harkless, a redshirt sophomore, played significant snaps at guard.
“Down to our third center in T.J., I thought, man, he played his tail off. Sharpe went out. Obviously Tez did a great job at left tackle. I was really proud of that. But more than that, Kavaris Harkless and what he did coming in,” McElwain said. “He’s been a guy that’s spelled at every spot on the offensive line and I just was really excited to see him get an opportunity. But more than that, take advantage of the opportunity with the way he played.”
After averaging just 1.8 yards per rush the previous two games, the Gators managed 4.6 yards per carry Saturday while piling up 171 rushing yards. Meanwhile, Appleby was only sacked once.
The quarterback credited the depleted offensive line with setting the tone for the offense and helping to get the unit moving after a couple sluggish performances.
“We won first down. We were able to get into second and manageable where we were able to move the pocket. We were able to do some of the misdirection and we could run the ball,” Appleby said. “And Coach Nuss (offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier) is able to get creative in his calls, and once we get our tempo going, we started wearing down their front. I stand back there and deliver the ball. You know, that’s going to be huge for us, to stay on rhythm, stay on tempo and play the way we can.”
The challenge gets tougher next week at LSU, but the Gators will hope their injury fortunes improve in the meanwhile.
It can’t get much worse.