GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Jim McElwain started saying it in the spring, that he felt Florida’s often-maligned offensive line could be a “true strength” of the team in 2017.
And he hasn’t backed down since.
“I’ve got to tell you, the offensive line is dramatically improved and I am so excited about that,” he continued Wednesday at Florida’s preseason media day.
Gators center T.J. McCoy hasn’t taken McElwain’s continued preseason praise necessarily as a compliment, though.
“I took it as a challenge,” McCoy said Friday before the team’s second day of practice. “That’s one thing I know I did. When he said at SEC Media Day that we’re the strength of this team, I took it as a challenge and we all did. We’ve just been working hard this whole summer just to get tighter and closer. We’ve been doing a lot of things after workouts, working on calls, working on footwork, just working overall just to be closer as a unit. We did a lot of team bonding activities, and I took it as a challenge and we’re ready for the challenge.”
Ask the Florida offensive linemen why exactly they believe they’re ready for a breakout season and they’ll toss around words like experience and chemistry — often overstated or cliche terms spouted by teams and players across the country at this time of the year.
Ultimately, the Gators will have to prove their growth on the field, but to those points …
The experience factor is real. Junior left tackle Martez Ivey has two years of starting experience and moves back to his natural position after playing mostly guard to this point. Sophomore right tackle Jawaan Taylor and McCoy, a redshirt sophomore, are now seasoned after taking on larger roles than expected a year ago. Juniors Fred Johnson and Tyler Jordan have gained considerable experience the last two years with 20 combined starts between them. And the one newcomer competing for a starting job, redshirt freshman guard Brett Heggie drew rave reviews in the spring.
The chemistry thing, albeit intangible and hard to both measure or project, is interesting too.
McCoy says the linemen would routinely stay after the players’ voluntary workouts this summer to get in extra time with the quarterbacks and work on mastering assignments and communications. More so than before.
But the real group bonding came off the field.
“We did a lot of outings this year,” McCoy said. “We went to Yamato. That’s great place if you all know about Yamato, great place. We had some hibachi. We went to Outback, we ordered (some) wings and cheese fries. We went fishing, catfish fishing, went to a couple of ponds in Gainesville. That was pretty fun to do.”
Picture three tables worth of Florida offensive linemen filling up an Outback Steakhouse. McCoy didn’t reveal how many wings were consumed, but he noted that he purchased three orders of cheese fries for the group.
“We’re big guys. We like to eat,” he said.
— TJ McCoy (@Iamtjmccoy) July 21, 2017
As for the fishing excursions, those were the idea of Jordan and Taylor and they came away with the biggest hauls.
“I’m a big fisherman, I caught a couple, but I didn’t catch nothing near as big as they did. Then we went back and just fried them up that night, so we got to have fun and fish and eat,” McCoy said.
He said the plan is to get the entire offensive line and the quarterbacks to go out to dinner together every Thursday night during the season.
“I feel like it’s just (about) trusting each other. You know your brother’s got your back. I would say it’s just trusting each other, and you know, it’s not all about football,” McCoy explained. “We go to these outings, we talk to each other about just regular stuff, life. I talk to Jawaan about his parents, his family, where he comes from. It’s all about getting to know each other and then saying, you know what, this guy cares about me. Not just the football, but he cares about my life, my school, my personal life, whatever I am going through personally, not on the field.
“Because I feel like when you don’t do team-bonding activities you kind of don’t know what everybody else’s agenda is. I feel like once you have these activities you know how each person is,. You know T.J. is this person or Tyler is this person. You get to know each individual on an intellectual level, not just football but a personal level. And that makes the bond tighter.”
It’s all worth it if the Gators’ offensive line can make the openings to the quarterback tighter too.
McElwain has often referenced having only four scholarship offensive linemen when he arrived before the 2015 season and how far the unit has come since then. Florida ranked dead last among FBS teams that season in giving up 46 sacks. The Gators reduced that number to 28 last season, finishing tied for 68th nationally.
Even with that improvement, though, there were times where the Gators were just manhandled up front. The loss at Florida State being the most glaring example.
The addition of new offensive line coach Brad Davis, who by all accounts has connected well with his players while pushing McElwain’s directives for a more aggressive approach up front, has had an impact as well.
If this preseason hype for the Florida offensive line is legitimate, the long-awaited breakout for the offense in general should follow right behind it.
Again, that’s still to be proven, but the optimism is certainly there.
“When I can finally say the strength of our team is our offensive line, I’ll feel pretty good about it,” McElwain said Wednesday while discussing his hopes for the offense.
In the meanwhile, Ivey doesn’t care whether the outside belief is there yet or not. He knows the job is only just beginning.
“Just keep working hard. Most people was bashing us for the last two years since I’ve been here. Now they believe we’re the strong point of the offense and we’re supposed to carry the load,” he said. “We’re not going to shock ourselves. I mean, everybody else can be surprised, but we know what we’ve got to do and we got to get better every single day.”