GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Speaking on the SEC’s spring coaches teleconference Monday, Florida coach Jim McElwain made a bold statement that may surprise — but should definitely encourage — Gators fans looking ahead to the 2017 season.
The Florida offensive line has taken a large share of criticism the last couple years and McElwain has commented time and again how it’s been a rebuilding process with that unit since he arrived.
Now, though, he thinks the offensive line could be “a true strength” for the Gators.
“I’m really excited about this group. This is probably … well, this is the best we’ve been since I’ve been here at that position,” McElwain said. “Obviously, there was some numbers issues as far as just what was there, and that’s nothing against anybody. It just kind of is what it is. You had some guys leave early, you had some guys due to injury that weren’t able to finish out their careers. And yet, that group has consistently gotten a little better. I’ve got to tell you, this spring, I think it’s a group that is actually going to now be a true strength for the Gators.”
Florida gave up 46 sacks in 2015, ranking dead last out of 127 FBS teams in that category (albeit, 121st in sacks allowed per game).
The Gators started three true freshmen (Martez Ivey 8 games, Tyler Jordan 3, and Fred Johnson 2) at various times that season as McElwain and his staff began the process of rebuilding the unit.
They added in another true freshman last fall as newcomer Jawaan Taylor emerged as a key building block at right tackle, while Ivey further settled in at left guard and Jordan and Johnson mostly split the right guard job.
Florida reduced that sacks allowed total to 28 last season, finishing tied for 68th nationally at 2.15 per game. That said, the unit was inconsistent at best and at times (vs. Florida State, for example) was thoroughly overpowered.
McElwain ended his final media session of the season by promising the line would have a new attitude in 2017. After offensive line coach Mike Summers left in January to take the same position at Louisville, McElwain hired Brad Davis from North Texas to fill the position.
Davis has a captivating presence to him, like a motivational speaker, and by all accounts quickly formed a strong connection with his players through spring practice.
The first-team offensive line wasn’t overwhelmingly impressive in the spring game, but more important is the impression McElwain took away from the spring as a whole.
With David Sharpe moving on to the NFL, Ivey has slid over to his original natural position at left tackle. After twice being named the SEC’s offensive lineman of the week in 2016, he and Taylor should be effective bookends at the tackle spot.
Redshirt freshman Brett Heggie looks to have seized the edge at left guard.
Redshirt sophomore T.J. McCoy went from third-string center to starter late last season, and drew praise from teammates and coaches alike. With 2016 season-opening starter Cam Dillard transferring out of the program, McCoy will try to build on his strong finish last fall.
And Jordan and Johnson are back to compete for the starting job at right guard, now both with two seasons of considerable experience.
More than anything, though, it’s the collective attitude that has McElwain encouraged.
And if he’s right about the offensive line becoming a strength — after being viewed, along with the quarterback play, as a key reason for the Gators’ offensive struggles these last two seasons — well, that will only create more optimism heading into this pivotal year for the program.
“I’m really excited about how they’ve kind of changed their mindset from a work standpoint and a competitive standpoint, and I’m excited to see them play,” McElwain said.