GAINESVILLE, Fla. — In dissecting his breakout performance in Saturday’s 45-7 rout of Kentucky, Florida quarterback Luke Del Rio made a point to spread the praise around and highlight, especially, the play of the Gators offensive line.
“I don’t know if you guys noticed, but I didn’t get touched after the first possession — literally did not get touched. Not hit, I did not get touched, so tremendous, tremendous job by them,” Del Rio said. “They deserve all the credit. They opened the running lanes for the running backs, and it’s really easy to play quarterback when you’re back there and there’s no pass rush.”
The Florida offensive line, as a unit, responded well after being called out by head coach Jim McElwain following a lackluster showing in the season-opener against Massachusetts. But on a more individual level, the performance of true freshman right tackle Jawaan Taylor stood out Saturday.
“Oh man, ‘The Great Wall of Waanny,’ that’s what I call him. He’s a stone wall,” Del Rio said. “He has the strongest punch I’ve ever seen a freshman have. He did a great job. Really physical. Love his mentality, very blue collar. Really good guy, too. (He’s) three lockers down, he’s a really good guy, smart, kind of a puppy. He’s so big it’s kind of a weird reference, but he is a freshman. And I’m really happy and proud of the way he played.”
Taylor received an unusual amount of preseason praise for a freshman by McElwain standards, and seeing him play an extended role against Kentucky, it quickly became clear why the Gators coach has been so impressed with the player he also calls “Waanny.”
Taylor, who is listed at 6-foot-5, 340 pounds, replaced sophomore right tackle Fred Johnson at the start of Florida’s second series and played the bulk of the snaps at that spot.
It seemed at the time that Johnson was being replaced for ineffectiveness, but McElwain said afterward that Johnson had an injured ankle that forced him out.
It will be interesting to see this week if Taylor’s performance has earned him more time on the field or even a shot at the starting job.
“I thought he did good,” McElwain said. “Like I said, Fred was on a gimp ankle and, to his credit, he wanted to go out and try it. Got ran by a couple times and then I thought Waanny did a pretty darn good job in protection, and yet the film will tell. … You know what? He did what he was supposed to do. He did his job for the most part.”
McElwain complimented Johnson’s play when he got some action later in the game as well, but it was Taylor on the field for the most part as the Gators offense broke out against Kentucky.
With that improved protection, Del Rio completed 19 of 32 passes for 320 yards, four touchdowns and an interception. The running backs combined for 244 yards while averaging 4.9 yards per carry. And the offense in general put up its most yards (564) since 2001.
And whether there is a formal change at right tackle this week or not, Taylor is at the least pushing Johnson at that spot and making a strong case for more playing time.
As for that unit, McElwain did not dispense a ton of praise for his team Saturday night despite the convincing win, but he he acknowledged the offensive line at least took a step forward after its rocky debut.
“They did OK. I mean, we’ve got to create some more creases and yet our protection was much better. So bits and pieces,” he said. “We put some dents in them today. We’ve just got to work on keeping our feet moving, playing low to high and playing with a never-say-die attitude up there.”