GAINESVILLE, Fla. — In looking for reasons to believe that Florida’s offensive line could be much improved from a year ago, a good place to start is with sophomore left guard Martez Ivey.
It wasn’t long ago that Ivey was touted as the No. 1 offensive lineman in the class of 2015 and one of the top overall recruits in the entire country. Now with a year of experience in the SEC after starting eight games as a true freshman, he admits he has a much better idea of what to expect this fall.
But for the record, if he is indeed going to have a breakout season as a sophomore, he wants to make clear it’s not going to have anything to do with outside expectations, recruiting rankings or any other extraneous matters of that sort.
“I did not care for recruiting at all. I didn’t listen to it, I didn’t buy into it at all,” he said Tuesday. “I didn’t really have pressure coming in, but when people address me about it and just like say, ‘You’re the top O-lineman,’ I don’t really care. You can’t really just go out and grade somebody. Stuff happens on the football field. … It’s all about technique and knowing your assignment and knowing what you’ve got to do.”
Those are the areas in which he believes he’s made considerable strides and the specific improvements that he hopes will make a difference on the field in 2016.
A offensive tackle coming out Apopka (Fla.) High School — about 110 miles from Gainesville — Ivey transitioned to left guard as a true freshman while playing in 12 games overall, including those eight starts at the end of the season.
He underwent offseason shoulder surgery after playing through an injury throughout his rookie campaign. While the coaches have limited him this preseason as a precaution, he claims he’s “full-go” and able to do everything.
Ivey won’t say exactly how much that shoulder, or the knee that he had scoped prior to last season, affected him in games, but he’ll readily admit his rookie season as a whole was a trying process at times and more of a learning experience overall than he anticipated.
“It was very tough. They say most freshmen don’t just come in and just play on the offensive line,” he said. “It was very overwhelming for me and I just dealt with it. It was a lot of that sometimes, but I fought through it.”
He recalls his first game, Week 3 at Kentucky, when he was quickly reminded that college football — and SEC football, in particular —was going to be an adjustment.
“I was going up to a linebacker and I thought I had him cut off and he just flew right past me. I was just like, ‘Damn,'” he recalled.
The Florida offensive line had its struggles as a unit in 2015 while giving up 46 sacks — the most in the country — but Ivey was nonetheless impressive enough to be named to the SEC Coaches All-Freshman team.
And the potential in the 6-foot-5, 312-pound sophomore is obvious. He says his weight hasn’t really changed from last fall, but he does feel stronger after a full year in the Gators’ strength training program.
More than anything, though, he took some lessons from that first season.
“I learned to respect the game and respect the players and also respect the speed of the game,” he said. “Also, you’ve got to have quite a bit of knowledge for it. You’ve got to watch film, you’ve got to do all the studying for it. You know, football after high school is a much more higher level than you’ve ever experienced, than I ever experienced. …
“It’s just the details. I thought I had it all going in, but no I didn’t. So I’m still learning.”
Sophomore right guard Tyler Jordan, himself thrown right into the offensive line rotation as a rookie last year, has noticed the time Ivey has put in away from the field
“I love that kid. … He’s always in the playbook, in the film room,” Jordan said.
As for his position, Ivey claims he doesn’t care whether he ends up at tackle eventually or stays at guard. Florida head coach Jim McElwain said after having Ivey work at guard most of last season, that’s where they’ll keep for him now.
While some of the communication responsibilities of the guard spot were new to him last year, it’s probably a better fit at this point as the sophomore readily admits he still needs to get better at pass protection.
His Apopka High School team was not necessarily known for its aerial attack.
“We threw the ball like once a game probably and ran like 60 plays,” he said.
He stood out in that offense, wowing college recruiters and the recruiting analysts who touted him as the best offensive line prospect in the country and top overall player in the talent-rich state of Florida.
He says his high school coaches helped him avoid getting caught up in all of that, though, and helped keep his focus on the task at hand.
And that hasn’t changed.
“I don’t really listen to everybody else’s expectations,” he said. “I just go out and play football. I do what my assignments tell me to do and just do what my football team need(s) me to do. I don’t have (an individual) goal. We have team goals, so I’m not really all about myself. I’m just all about what I can do for the team.”
If all goes as hoped, that could be quite a lot.
All recruiting ratings are from the 247Sports composite rankings unless otherwise noted.
Ryan Young is a Florida beat writer for SEC Country and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.