GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Each week, Florida quarterback Luke Del Rio selects a restaurant and takes his starting offensive linemen out to dinner, picking up the tab on Thursday nights as a gesture of appreciation for their protection on Saturdays.
While Del Rio has had his ups and downs as a passer in his first season as the Gators’ starter, say this for the quarterback — he has drawn praise from just about every corner of the team for his leadership qualities and the respect he commands on the field.
When the offensive line has struggled this season, Del Rio has never criticized the unit publicly. When the offense performs well, he directs the praise their way.
All the while knowing that his future success — and that of the Gators — is tied to the line’s continued development and cohesiveness.
Free dinner on Thursdays is an easy way to work toward the latter.
“It started Week 1. I wanted to do something with them to kind of just show them that I care about them. I wanted to bring the group closer together and just hang out outside of football,” Del Rio said this week. “… Sometimes it’s not just the starting five. If there’s a rotational guy that will get to play in some packages, then I’ll bring him along, too. But it’s a really good thing and they look forward to it. Every Wednesday night, they’re like, ‘Where are we going to go tomorrow night?’ I’m glad that I do it.”
And, the Gators feel, the first part of that equation is progressing as well.
Florida coach Jim McElwain said his offense made a statement at the end of its 24-10 win over Georgia last Saturday, grinding out a 10 play, 5 minute, 33 second field goal drive on its penultimate possession and then running out the final 3:08 with a pair of chain-moving pickups on fourth-and-1 and third-and-3.
Overall, it was a sluggish offensive performance. Del Rio took 3 sacks (including one awarded on an intentional grounding penalty), the team averaged a paltry 2.1 yards per carry and the advanced numbers from Pro Football Focus‘ in-depth analysis show the line had its struggles against the Bulldogs.
A game-by-game look at the Pro Football Focus grades for Florida’s OL (1-100 scale)
|LT David Sharpe||67.6||42.9||74.5||42.5||77.8||78.2||47.6|
|LG Martez Ivey||50.6||42.7||69.4||71.4||49.6||59.2||66.8|
|C Cam Dillard||74.8||84.3||41.0||82.4||80.8||53.1||47.9|
|RG Tyler Jordan||51.4||53.2||DNP||DNP||53.8||55.7||50.4|
|RT Jawaan Taylor||65.9||86.8||70.6||72.9||70.5||76.9||69.2|
|RT/RG Fred Johnson||45.8||46.5||77.7||68.1||68.4||77.5||66.3|
But offensive line evaluation is a complicated science and the coaches and quarterback know better than anyone what they’re seeing from the group week to week.
“They are starting to see the importance of playing with a sense of urgency, a pad level and a finish,” McElwain said. “That’s where we’re trying to get it and that’s where we will get. I think them seeing themselves do it really helps.”
Offensive line coach Mike Summers points to the Gators’ 20 first downs in the game, their season-best time of possession (37 minutes, 27 seconds) and especially their fourth-quarter time of possession (10:30) — which was their best all season. Florida’s previous high for the fourth quarter was 9:40 against North Texas, and in SEC games it was 7:54 against Kentucky.
Despite the season-high 3 sacks allowed (they’ve now given up 9 all season for the second fewest in the SEC after allowing an FBS-worst 46 last year), Summers didn’t feel like Georgia got a lot of defenders loose in the backfield, relatively speaking.
Overall, he says he’s seeing clear improvements in the communication of his linemen, which despite whatever the numbers may say is highly encouraging for him.
“One of the ways that I see it and I feel it is when we come over on the sideline between series, the feedback that I get from them is a lot more, they’re a lot more vocal and they’re also a lot more accurate with what they tell me,” Summers said this week. “Sometimes I see things and expect to hear the same thing from them, and if I don’t it’s really concerning to me because I want to know that they’re seeing exactly what I see, so I gauge that by what feedback I get from them on the sideline.
“I think earlier in the season, you know, I would get over there and we would talk and I didn’t get the feedback I was looking for from what they saw on the field. Now I get confirmation that they know and understand what they’re looking at, they’re able to communicate that with me and then we’re able to make adjustments from there.”
Nobody, Summers included, would say it’s a finished product.
It’s still a very young unit with true sophomores Martez Ivey and Tyler Jordan at left guard and right guard, respectively, and breakout true freshman Jawaan Taylor settling in at right tackle. They are joined by the veterans of the line in junior left tackle David Sharpe and redshirt-junior center Cam Dillard.
What excites the coaches, though, is that there is still room — and time — for that offensive line to grow.
All five of those guys and key sophomore sub Fred Johnson could be back next year, along with the other developing young linemen and whoever the Gators are able to sign in February.
Taylor is a prime example of a player significantly exceeding expectations, making it hard to project a ceiling for that group up front.
“Crystal balls are meant for somebody other than coaches, but who could have ever predicted that he’s filling the role that he’s filling for us right now,” Summers said.
Meanwhile, he lauds the consistency that Dillard brings at the center spot. Dillard keys the communication amongst the group, reading the defense, identifying the point linebacker and initiating any needed pre-snap adjustments along with Del Rio. He’s not a physically dominant center, Summers says, but he has delivered in the most important areas.
Ivey, the top-rated offensive tackle nationally in his recruiting class according to the 247Sports composite, has not yet lived up to that billing, but he is progressing as evidenced by his SEC offensive lineman of the week honor coming off the Georgia game.
For all the griping from fans about the offensive line — and, sure, the critical stories from reporters — there might be legitimate reason for optimism that a promising foundation is being established, albeit in something of a trial by fire manner.
“We basically started over last year with a whole new group,” Summers said. “This year we’ve added a couple guys to that, but watching them develop, that’s the pride that you have as a coach, seeing that group of guys come together and kind of lock arms and become the protectors for the team. They’re the engine that drives this football team, especially offensively. The more confident they are, the more together they are, the more of a role that they fill as an integral part of what we do, certainly our whole team is going to elevate. And I’m excited that we’ve got guys in there that can be (those) kind of performers, they can be consistent performers and push our execution and push our production even higher than it is now.”
Each of the remaining games on Florida’s schedule will be another evaluation for the offensive line, another chance to show progress and assuage concerns. Or not.
Dillard acknowledged “there’s so much more left out there for us to continue to grow on.”
But like his coach, he says he sees genuine progress. He points to better communication in pass protection and improved chemistry within the group.
It keeps coming back to that.
“We’ve definitely grown as a unit,” Dillard said. “Every Thursday we’re always going out to dinner together, and we’re just continuing to grow, continuing to get to know each other that much more and continue to just build that bond that you need on the offensive line in order to get five guys going in the same direction.”
So back to the dinners, the location changing every week. Most recently, Del Rio took his group of bodyguards to Piesanos.
It may seem like a simple — though expensive — gesture from Del Rio, but it has resonated with those guys.
“The first time we had it I felt like he had our back and that made me want to fight for him a little bit more,” Ivey said. “You know, taking us out to eat, it don’t get no better than free food, right?”
Since he was the one to bring it up, Dillard was asked who eats the most at the dinners.
“I think Tyler Jordan does. He pounds those desserts,” he said, drawing some laughs.
Ivey, meanwhile, was asked how restrained he is in his menu selections knowing that is quarterback is footing the bill.
“Whatever I want, I’m (going to) get it,” he said with a smile.
As long as the production is there on Saturdays, Del Rio is probably OK with that.
He knows as well as anyone this offense can’t take the necessary steps forward without the line doing so first.
“I’ve said this before, you can have a lot of talented guys, but if they don’t work well as a unit, then they’re not going to be very good,” Del Rio said. “… Every play, those five guys are on the field and they have to work together. Our offensive success depends on how well they play.”