Time to talk about the unit that gets the worst criticism when things go wrong and are wholly ignored when things go well: the offensive line. Florida had a good line last year at times, but things really collapsed down the stretch. With four of five starters returning, can this finally be the year in which the Gators’ line is an asset and not a liability?
The leader: David Sharpe. Oh, where has the time gone? Just yesterday, I was interviewing Sharpe as an excited high school recruit; now, he’s the unquestioned leader of the entire offense line. He’s quick, strong, smart, and above all, a sure bet to lock down that left tackle spot barring injury- which as we all know from “The Blind Side” is the most important position on the line. He’s also got by far the most playing experience of the projected five starters; only Cam Dillard is older, but has played sparingly behind Trip Thurman up until now. This is Sharpe’s unit, no doubt about it.
The second in command: Martez Ivey. Assuming he’s healthy, that is. Ivey could one day become a first round NFL Draft pick if he stops getting injured, but for the purposes of this preview, let’s say he’s at at least 85% of his full strength for the whole season. He’s an absolute monster with incredible feet and strength, but perhaps it’s his versatility that makes him so valuable. He’s equally capable at tackle or guard, which gives Florida the ability to play more mono positioned guys the ability to play where they’re most comfortable. He’ll probably start the year at left guard, but don’t be shocked if he moves around at times this year.
The dark horse: Fred Johnson. The Gators have a super highly regarded offensive line recruits in each of their last two classes in the starting five, and while they’ve both played to their potential so far (when healthy) the real key to this unit is sophomore Fred Johnson. He’s not quite as quick on his feet as Ivey or Sharpe, but he’s a bull. And like a bull, he’ll jump out of his stance and attack with an explosive force that’s capable of driving defenders into the ground. If he improves his pad level, he could be a star.
The other guys: Cameron Dillard, Tyler Jordan. Just because there wasn’t a place for either of them in the cookie cutter format of this preview doesn’t mean they won’t play huge roles. Both Dillard and Jordan are highly intelligent kids who learned by fire a year ago, and after taking the usual share of freshman lumps, they’re ready to go in 2016. Oh, and they’re pretty strong guys with tremendous footwork and instincts, too. I figured I should mention that somewhere.
The key to success: consistency. Same as pretty much every other unit, I know. But Florida’s line was decent in spots last year, pretty good in others, and atrocious in still others. Part of that was Treon Harris’s ineptitude, sure, but Harris wasn’t missing all those blocks. This line consists of five talented players with the capability to perform well enough to give the unit the ultimate honor: media silence. Time for them to do it on a weekly basis.
The outlook: Bright, but with some storm clouds lurking nearby. The pieces for a great offensive line are all there, but you always have to worry about injuries with any offensive line, much less a line with a history of injuries like this one. You do hope that they’re a year stronger, smarter and better, and it’s reasonable to think so. Just don’t bet your house on it.
The verdict: Florida should have the best offensive line it’s had since the 2008 championship team… if everybody stays healthy. (No, the 2012 offensive line wasn’t this talented.) You can’t predict injuries, though, so now with Mike Summers in his third year as offensive line coach and a laundry list of contributors coming back from a year ago, there’s a lot to like about this unit. It’s amazing to think that McElwain could clean up the mess Will Muschamp left him with just six scholarship players on the offensive line in one year, but it looks like he’s done just that.