GAINESVILLE, Fla. — A week and a half or so into camp, Florida head coach Jim McElwain had his offensive linemen and tight ends turn to each other, introduce themselves and shake hands during practice.
“He was like, ‘Now you guys know each other, time to talk to each other,'” sophomore right guard Tyler Jordan said earlier this week.
That was to further emphasize that McElwain feels the communication up front has to be much better than it was a year ago when the Gators gave up 46 sacks — an undesirable school record and the most in the country — while struggling mightily down the stretch offensively.
Regardless of how good the defense might be this fall, for Florida to build on what it created last year with a 10-win season and try to push even further forward, much of the onus rests squarely on the shoulders of an offensive line that is a year older and, the Gators hope, a year better.
That was that very first point McElwain made at the team’s media day earlier this month when addressing his hopes for the offense.
“Offensively, it all starts up front. You guys know that. I’ve talked about that from the start,” he said. “We had some guys kind of learn by fire a little bit last year, and to see what they learned and to see how they piece together is really going to show where we are going to go offensively.”
After some encouraging offensive play early last season, the Gators finished out the schedule averaging just 12.8 points over the final six games. They gave up 24 of those sacks in that span.
But the struggles weren’t totally head-scratching.
The offense struggled after starting quarterback Will Grier was suspended for a violation of the NCAA’s performance-enhancing drug policy and replaced by Treon Harris. Also, the Gators were playing three true freshmen on the offensive line down the stretch of the season while matching up against some very physical defenses from the likes of Florida State, Alabama and Michigan.
In fact, all three of those true freshmen lined up as starters in the blowout loss to the Wolverines in the Citrus Bowl.
“I think we can be a lot better. I’ve said this a lot, I kind of sound like a broken record, we’ve matured — but that’s a big thing,” Jordan said. “When you’ve got three true freshmen in a rotation playing on the offensive line last year and you put a whole year in the weight room and the film room, just studying everything and knowing what you’re going to do and your technique’s better, you’re going to get a lot better. You’re going to progress.”
That’s the hope, at least.
Jordan joined the program last year expecting to work at center and learn behind starter Cameron Dillard. By the first week of preseason camp last August, though, he was getting reps with the first team and would end up playing in all 14 games and starting the last three as an undersized right guard.
After playing at 290 pounds last season, he says he’s up to around 305-310 now and feels he’s added significant speed and strength. He’s still taking some reps at center and even left tackle to help with the Gators’ depth, but he’s expected to man that right guard spot again.
“We need to be a lot more physical. That’s what we’re looking to do,” he said.
Martez Ivey was another true freshman learning on the fly last fall as he played in 12 games and started the last eight at left guard. Of course, he wasn’t just any true freshman.
Ivey came to Florida as the top-rated offensive line prospect in the country. He admitted he was overwhelmed at times as a rookie, but the 6-foot-5, 312-pound sophomore remains a breakout candidate heading into his second season.
He’ll pair with junior left tackle David Sharpe (6-6, 347), a returning starter and the leader of the unit at this point, to form what he expects will be a stout left side of the line.
Well, Ivey put it a little stronger than that.
“I believe we can be dominant. Me and Sharpe will be dominant,” he said this week.
On the other side, right tackle Fred Johnson (6-6, 311) is another lineman who played significantly as a true freshman last year while appearing in eight games and making two starts. He’s generated favorable reviews from teammates and coaches this preseason.
And Dillard (6-4, 313), a redshirt-junior, is back at center after starting the first 11 games of 2015 and playing in 13 overall.
The Gators lost some depth when redshirt-junior Antonio Riles Jr. suffered a season-ending ACL injury earlier this month, but McElwain has been especially high on the development of true freshman Jawaan Taylor while also giving mention to fellow rookie Brett Heggie and redshirt-freshmen Nick Buchanan and Brandon Sandifer.
He’s challenged the unit to be more aggressive as a whole, but he does see progress.
“They’ve done a tremendous job of really gelling and understanding the nuances of the offense, which is big if you want to be successful, especially along the offensive line,” McElwain said. “Because if you don’t block then we’re sacked or tackled for a loss. Not a lot of positives come from the offensive line not being on the same page, but they’ve done a really good job of that this camp.”
That’s been the players’ evaluation as well.
“They definitely know their calls more,” sophomore running back Jordan Cronkrite said. “Last year there was a lot of slip-ups with little basic things, and now they’re on top of their game. It’s definitely an improvement there.”
Said Ivey: “It’s sometimes getting to the point where we know what we got to do and we can just look at each other like, ‘Yeah you know what you got, you know what you got,'” Ivey said. “It’s gotten to that point almost.”
Jordan said the group worked together on their own throughout the offseason, meeting in the indoor practice facility and working in rotation to push the one-man blocking sled and up and down the field.
That sack total from last year sticks with all of the linemen. So does the way the offense stumbled down the stretch.
They know for this Gators offense to take a step forward, they have to lead the way.
“Everybody’s on the same page,” Jordan said.
Ryan Young is a Florida beat writer for SEC Country and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.