We’re introducing a new segment here at IAKOW called “Ten Days of Spring,” each installment of which will describe something the Gators must do in spring practice to better prepare themselves for the upcoming season. Sounds simple, right? Good, so let’s let to it.
We start today with part one of a two day piece on the Gators’ ground game, which exploded for well over 400 yards of total offense in the glorious 38-13 thrashing of Georgia last fall, (and don’t use what happened with :03 left on the clock to tell me I’m wrong) but the rest of the year was little better than average for an SEC team. In terms of replacing the backs they lost from last year’s team, Florida should be OK; they lose Matt Jones, but Kelvin Taylor and Adam Lane should form a solid one-two punch. Add incoming freshman Jordan Scarlett to the mix, and Florida now has three potentially dangerous running backs. So the running backs themselves aren’t the problem (we’ll discuss them tomorrow in greater detail).
It’s the situation on the offensive line that leaves me worried.
Florida running backs tallied 418 yards last year against Georgia mainly because of the best team-wide blocking performance in years. Inversely, the lack of executing such helpful blocks on a consistent basis is why Florida’s running game was largely ineffective under Will Muschamp. So Jim McElwain had his work cut out for him in terms of piecing together an effective offensive line; that task is made harder by having to replace DJ Humphries, Chaz Green, Max Garcia, Trenton Brown and Tyler Moore, which equates to four of the five starters from last year, plus a key reserve.
There’s good news, though: (at least some) help is on the way. McElwain reeled in the nation’s best offensive tackle in this year’s class in Martez Ivey, and while he’s only a freshman, he displays ridiculous pure athleticism that just can’t be taught, running a 5.2 40 yard dash (unheard of for a lineman) and is extremely explosive with his first step off the snap. He’s also 20 years old, making him older than most freshman, and yes, the consensus opinion is that he will start in the fall.
There’s more help coming in the fall in the form of Tyler Jordan, who is not only a master in the art of recruiting, but he’s a damned good talent to boot. He unleashes a particular form of evil once he’s engaged the defender, using his quick feet and strong hands to either drive the defender out of the play or straight into the ground. He’s a good, not great athlete, but compensates by being incredibly intelligent and quick thinking; he rarely over pursues or takes wrong angles, and his footwork is exceptional. I bet he gets a chance to start at guard or center at some point as a true freshman.
But again, neither Jordan nor Ivey will get to campus until August, but a) both are talented enough and smart enough to start right away and b) Florida didn’t recruit either of them to watch their freshman years from the sidelines. And besides, Florida’s going to need more than five competent offensive linemen. So McElwain’s goal for spring ball is clear: find the best starting offensive line rotation that doesn’t include Thurman, Jordan or Ivey.
The key to the offensive line this spring is sophomore OT David Sharpe, who I expect to land one of the two starting tackle spots. I spoke with Sharpe last summer about what he planned to accomplish at Florida, and he sounded incredibly determined to become a key factor in the Gators’ offensive line when the time came. Well, that time has now come. Like Ivey, his natural athleticism is off the charts. He springs out of his stance on the snap and generates some scary force on impact with the defensive linemen. When he does get beat, he’s sometimes able to recover just enough to slow the lineman down and give his QB an extra second to do something that most tackles wouldn’t be able to give. But he’s no longer a last resort backup; he’s going to be counted on heavily going forward. I’d love to see him adjust to the bigger role he’ll be playing this spring, and if he does, he could turn out to be a pleasant surprise.
Other guys that will be in the mix include Cam Dillard, Travaris Dorsey, Antonio Riles, Andrew Mike and Kavaris Harkless. But only Dillard and Riles has ever seen real game action, and the rest are redshirt freshmen. So McElwain and offensive line coach Mike Summers will have a tough task ahead of them in terms of picking a starting five heading into the summer. Of course, they’ll have two pieces to easily insert then in Ivey and Thurman, and possibly a third in Jordan (and maybe even a fourth in incoming freshman Brandon Sandifer), but as we remember from 2013, you’d better be prepared with adequate backups. Failure to do so can be fatal.
Of course, the lack of scholarship players available (just eight) on the offensive line gives McElwain an excuse to not build the SEC’s most fearsome offensive line by the spring game. But one of his top priorities this spring has to be- has to be- building an adequate one before the Orange and Blue Debut.