It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. In the season’s first game, on the Dallas Cowboys’ field, playing on national television against the storied Michigan Wolverines, Florida’s offensive line was supposed to do the pushing rather than get pushed around. Coach Jim McElwain had raved about the unit heading into the season. He said it would be a team strength. Yet in game one, it was not .
“It was a gut punch,” offensive line coach Brad Davis said. “And it was what we needed.”
Since that game, during which Florida allowed six sacks, No. 21 UF’s offensive line has allowed three sacks combined in two games. The nine total sacks still rank 10th in the Southeastern Conference and 86th nationally, but the pass blocking has shown improvement since the stomping it took against Michigan. So has the run blocking.
The Gators managed 11 yards on the ground against the Wolverines, upped it to 168 against Tennessee and 186 against Kentucky.
Through the discouragement of the opening loss, the disappointment of missing out on a tune-up game due to Hurricane Irma, the suspension and levying of potential felony charges against freshman tackle Kadeem Telfort and back-to-back last-second wins, Florida’s offensive line has shown one thing it preached in the pre-season has come true: Thanks to the bonds formed within the unit, it’s been able to tune out distractions.
Now, the classic sports cliche of “just focusing on the game” and forgetting about hurricanes, suspensions, close wins and poor performances is repeated across sports whenever something bad happens to a team. Granted. But Florida’s offensive line has shown its legitimately capable of doing it. One player even says those challenges help.
“It made it a lot easier on us,” left tackle Martez Ivey said. “It’s like, we can fight through adversity and come together and we can still win, still push each other every day to come out and play hard.”
The improvements shouldn’t be a total surprise. Florida’s offensive line features a group of highly ranked, tall, heavy players, starting with Ivey.
He was the top-ranked offensive lineman in the class of 2015, carried five stars and was rated as the nation’s second-best player. He was joined by UF’s now-starting right guard Fred Johnson, who was a three-star recruit, but one who was 6-foot-7, 301 pounds in high school, held offers from Virginia Tech. Nebraska and Tennessee, and played his freshman year at Florida.
Right guard Brett Heggie was rated as the sixth-best center in the nation in the class of 2016 by the 247Sports Composite in addition to being an Under Armour All American. And go-to backup Tyler Jordan was also an Under Armour All American rated the seventh-best center in the country.
That leaves T.J. McCoy and Jawaan Taylor. McCoy is the outlier of the group, having come to Florida as a transfer from North Carolina State to be closer to his ailing father in Orlando. He was relegated to third-string center duty until late into last season when a string of injuries forced him into action. Since then, the 6-foot-1, 314-pound leader of the offensive line hasn’t lost his job. And Taylor, the team’s heaviest offensive lineman at 334 pounds, made the All-SEC Freshman Team last season.
Still, there was work to be done after Michigan tore through them like bullets through paper.
“To go out and underperform and underachieve was a huge disappointment,” Davis said. “My job as a coach is to not beat them up or tear them down. It’s to build.”
He’s done so by trying to improve communication and eliminate “self-inflicted wounds,” like penalties and missed assignments. He said his players have responded well.
“They handled it like men,” he said.
McCoy added having Luke Del Rio at quarterback helped with the communication.
“He does a great job of calling out the play and explaining it to everybody,” he said. “He does a great job of that and keeping everybody together."
And McElwain, with all the off-field distractions, said it’s expected of the offensive line to tune out. When nine of your teammates are suspended -- including one from your own unit -- you’ve missed a game, your quarterback position is in constant flux, what’s one bad opening game?
“I think there's one thing these guys have done a pretty good job of,” McElwain said, “is dealing with some things."