GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Martez Ivey signed with Florida with considerable fanfare a couple years ago, rated as the No. 1 offensive tackle in the country in the recruiting class of 2015.
And now finally as a junior he’ll get to play that position full time for the Gators.
After starting at left guard the past 2 seasons, Ivey moves to left tackle following the departure of David Sharpe. Ivey says there’s a transition involved after working on the interior of the line, but he welcomed the change when told he’d be shifting.
“I was happy. I wasn’t saying nothing,” he said Tuesday, joking as Florida opened spring practice.
Ivey made notable strides from his freshman to sophomore seasons, twice being named the SEC’s offensive lineman of the week last fall. One of those honors came for his work at tackle — he took over when Sharpe left the win over South Carolina early because of an ankle injury.
“I got used to playing guard and now I’m getting back used to playing tackle,” he said. “It’s a transition, and every transition in you do in life it’s (not) always easy. But it does come natural out there.”
Ivey starred at tackle for Apopka (Fla.) High School, but he wasn’t asked to do much pass protection there while playing in a run-dominated offense. He admitted last summer he needed to improve in that regard.
But listed at 6-foot-5, 305 pounds and now with 2 seasons experience as a starter, he brings considerable upside to the most important position on the offensive line.
A natural at tackle
Truth be told, there really wasn’t much discussion after Sharpe declared he was leaving early for the NFL. Ivey was the clear option at left tackle, and he will benefit from going through his first full spring practice after recovering from shoulder surgery this time last year.
Florida coach Jim McElwain, for one, has no reservations about Ivey’s abilities on the outside.
“You know, he stepped out there, I forget which game it was, and did a great job. I think it’s natural for him,” McElwain said. “The thing we’ve got to do is really solidify a couple of those inside spots.”
McElwain lauded the performances of redshirt freshman Brett Heggie and redshirt sophomore Nick Buchanan on Tuesday as they battle for interior line jobs. Heggie can play center or guard, but the Gators hope redshirt sophomore T.J. McCoy can lock up the center spot he took over late last season.
Florida had junior Tyler Jordan working at left guard in practice Tuesday. Jordan made starts at right guard the past 2 seasons, but McElwain wasn’t ready to decide about the position. Fellow junior Fred Johnson, who split time with Jordan last season; and redshirt junior Kavaris Harkless also are guard candidates.
As for Ivey, expectations are high that he can take another step forward in his third season.
During his introductory media conference a few weeks ago, new offensive line coach Brad Davis said he believes Ivey has “limitless potential.”
“He has really, really expressed a strong desire to find ways to improve his game. I think he’s a kid who falls in the category of ‘loves football,'” Davis said. “And so I’ve been very, very thrilled to work with him every day. He really, I think, has a ton of potential to be a leader and to be a guy that makes other guys around him better.”
They’ve only had 1 practice together, but Ivey spoke of his first impressions of his new position coach as well.
“A lot of energy, a lot of energy. He pushes us and makes us want to go out there and compete every day,” he said. “He’s giving his all, so we’re going to give our all. If you’ve got somebody out there giving their all for you, you’ve got to do the same thing for them. That’s how we feel.”
Ivey said a message in particular that Davis shared with him is to get in the film room this spring and during the offseason to better learn the nuances of his new, if not old, position.
As Ivey grows
How Ivey performs at left tackle could set the tone for what the Gators hope — again — will be an improved offensive line. Florida significantly reduced its sacks allowed from an FBS-worst 46 in 2015 to 28 last fall, but the line was still far too inconsistent.
McElwain challenged the group to be more physical and aggressive. He liked what he saw Tuesday and reflected on how different the unit looks from when he took over 2 years ago.
“I tell you what, it’s night and day out there,” he said. “And here’s what was good is the energy in which they went to the line of scrimmage, they communicated, they played fast, they got in between plays and, you know, it was good to see. And I think part of that has to do with, even their age, they’ve grown up and had to grow up fast and understand the expectation of what we want.”
When Ivey came in as a much-ballyhooed freshman, he was thrown right into action as Florida started over along the line. He played in 12 games that year and started the final 8 at guard.
For that matter, he, Jordan and Johnson all drew starts as true freshmen during that 2015 season.
Ivey says he too sees a clear difference from then to now.
Until the Gators prove it on the field this fall, it’s merely confidence and optimism at this point. But that’s better than the alternative.
“Two years (ago) when I got here it was brand new. Now, we’ve got chemistry built up. We’ve got our calls and we know what to do. We’ve seen these fronts before. Everybody’s got experience,” Ivey said. “It doesn’t matter who they put in the game, we can count on anybody with our depth right now.”
And the Gators are especially counting on a big season from their new left tackle.