FLORIDA FOOTBALL & RECRUITING COVERAGE
As the Florida Gators players prepare for the fall, we look back over the spring practices and Orange and Blue Game with former players as each recaps what he saw from his respective positional unit and what he expects from them this fall in our annual F-Club series.
A lot of analysts expect the Gators’ success in 2019 to hinge on the development of the offensive line.
They return a two-year starting quarterback who appeared to figure things out late last season, a deep and talented running back corps led by Lamical Perine and perhaps one of the SEC’s deepest group of receivers. However, as Gator Great wide receiver Chris Doering discussed in Part Three of this series, none of that matters if the offensive line doesn’t hold up.
UF must replace four starters from last year’s unit that ranked 20th in the country in fewest sacks allowed (18) and fourth in the SEC in rushing yards per game. The one returning starter, center Nick Buchanan, has made just 12 starts in his career. The replacements are inexperienced and mostly unproven, although they do show some potential.
One person who knows what it takes to be a high-level offensive lineman in the SEC is former Florida great Shannon Snell. Snell played in 46 of a possible 51 games throughout his career, with 36 starts at left guard. He was named Second Team All-SEC in 2002 and First Team All-American by The Sporting News in 2003. He played two years in the NFL.
Snell remains involved with Florida football and the local community. He’s currently a cook at a Sonny’s BBQ restaurant in Gainesville, and he handles the cooking for many of the Florida Gators football related events throughout the year.
Snell took some time to talk with Inside the Gators about the status of the Gators’ offensive line, what he likes about John Hevesy, how Dan Mullen’s scheme makes things easier for the offensive line and more.
What are the challenges of replacing four starters on the offensive line, aside from the physical aspect of it?
“Just cohesiveness. I mean, you got guys that have practiced together, and that goes along with it because, a lot of times in practice, that backup unit’s practicing against one of the best defenses in the country. But, it’s nothing like until the lights actually come on and you’re in a real-time game against a different opponent. Physically, I think they’re good. I mean, Nick Savage has done a really good job getting these guys ready, a lot of these guys have redshirted or, you know, Brett Heggie coming back from that knee injury. I think they’re all willing and up to the task. I think they’re physically able to do it, but it’s very much a mental game because they will throw stuff at that offensive line, and everybody knows they’re young. Well, not young, but maybe more inexperienced. So, defenses like to, the Georgias of the world and the Tennessees that’ll throw some stuff at them to try to confuse them, especially that they don’t have that kind of experience in the SEC or just the pure experience that they have of game time.”
The one returning starter they have is at center. So, how important is it for Nick Buchanan to become the leader of the group?
“It really is up to Nick. Nick and, like I said, Brett Heggie, those are two guys, Brett before he got hurt was actually doing very well. He was on his way to becoming an All-SEC guard, but that ACL kind of took him down, took him out. So, between the two of those guys, they have to be the leaders on that line. Now, every guy’s going to have to hold his own because, at some point in the season, and, you know, starting game one with Miami, they’re going to go up against a tough defense. And that’s one thing that you really hate to see coming out the gate is that they face a defense like that. Normally, you like a warm-up game just to kind of get all the bugs worked out. That’s been normal for Florida in the past minus the Michigan game a couple years back. But, this one is going to be a really true test for them because they’re, I mean, from week one, and they’re going to be pretty much the only game on TV, they got to show out and show up. So, they don’t have a down week, they don’t have a week to kind of get ready. They have to be ready right out the gate.”
What did you see from Buchanan last year?
“He was good. He was solid. He was a solid starter, and that’s kind of what you expect from your center. I mean, you never will have a center that’s a superstar. You’ll have some that are pretty good that’ll make the blocks, but they have to be solid, they have to get the ball to the quarterback. Great snaps, and they have to be able to make the protection and the line calls so things aren’t confusing for Feleipe Franks. I mean, as you look at it, and he was doing a pretty job at that, especially toward the end part of the year where the guys weren’t confused, the line was very cohesive. The center has to be kind of like the stalwart on that line. He has to be the guy that needs to be right all the time, and he has to be the guy that knows all the positions. He can’t be the guy that doesn’t because, as he’s calling out protections, he’s got to identify the Mike linebacker, the Sam linebacker or whatever it’s going to be. If he can’t do that or if he can’t get his protection down or know what every guy’s doing, there’s going to be a breakdown. All it takes on the offensive line is one guy to mess up for the offensive line to look completely bad. So, for what he did last year, I thought he was solid, but he has to kind of take on a new role this year and become the leader, which generally is not always the center’s forte, but I think he can do it.”
How hard do you think it is for offensive linemen to improve these days with all of the limitations on the amount of contact you can have in practice?
“If these guys have any hope of playing at the next level, this is kind of where it starts. At the next level, you don’t have a whole lot of contact. And that was one thing that was shocking to me when I was playing in Dallas and when I was playing in Minnesota was that it was more of a mental game. You’ll see a lot of film; you’ll see a lot of stuff going on. So, I think it’s better. All that physicality, these guys got there because of that. I think that time’s kind of run short. There’s times that they need to be physical, there’s times that they need to do that in practice, but it’s more of a mental game. These guys physically can perform, and that’s why they’re at the University of Florida. But, if these guys can’t get the mental game down, the physical stuff doesn’t mean anything. I think it’s become more mental-first then physical. For them, like I said, Nick Savage has done a good job with them. They know the techniques, they know they’re strong enough, they’re big enough. I think it’s the mental game. If you have any hopes of being at that next level or moving past this college game, then you have to try to perform on this mental level.”
What do you like about Brett Heggie?
“I love the guy. I think he’s very physical, I think he’s athletic, I think he’s got the tools to really be something special if that ACL can hold up, and, before it all went down, he had the opportunity to be that anyway. I’m very kind of nervous for him because I want to see obviously how he does in real-time competition and see how he mentally adjusts to it because, once again, once you’re under the bright lights against a different team where you have to trust yourself and trust your knee, it’s a different animal compared to being in practice when you can kind of pull up on it if you need to and the play can just be dead from there. But, if things go to plan or if he plays up to his potential, don’t be surprised to see him as a guy that could potentially solidify his name as an All-SEC guy.”
Stone Forsythe’s obviously a massive guy, but he’s a bit of a mystery. Where do you think he’s at right now?
“For as big as the guy is, you see him, he’s really well cut. They’ve done a really good job in the weight room with him. He looks the part of a left tackle. The unknown is obviously his playing time. Now, he’s going to go through his struggles, just like you saw with Martez Ivey. Martez was a five-star coming out of high school, and he struggled coming into the SEC, but, as time went on, he got a lot better. And, the same thing’s going to happen with Stone. He’s going to come out the gate, and he’s going to play well, he’s going to have those times where he does not. He might miss a block or two, or he might end up getting beat. Those things happen to any left tackle, but he just needs to kind of keep his head on straight and keep pushing forward because, eventually, his body size, his wingspan and his physicality will allow him to be a pretty good player.”
What makes John Hevesy a good offensive line coach?
“As far as X’s and O’s go, he’s one of the best in the entire country. I’ve had numerous opportunities to just watch him coaching the guys, and he is very much a technician. And, he’s an offensive line coach. Offensive line coaches are different. They got a different mentality where an offensive line coach, you know exactly which coach that is on the field, where that’s the guy that’s yelling, that’s the guy that’s always on your butt and that’s the guy that’s always kind of getting after it. As far as him, he’s gotten the best out of a lot of guys. Like coming into the program last year, he got the best out of those guys that he put on that line. It doesn’t really matter the lineup. He made those guys better, and I think that was really good. You talk about Jawaan Taylor, Jawaan was a really good athlete, but he never really put it together until after Hevesy got his hands on him. I think that’s really good, and I think that’s kind of a testament to who he is. You got a guy that really was kind of a tweener of a fourth-, fifth-rounder who went straight to the [second] round because he had such a great year. Look at them technique-wise. Throughout the entire season, you could tell they worked on their craft because, game one, they were totally different than when they played Michigan in that Peach Bowl. They looked so much better, and I think that really was a testament to him. It showed how good of a coach he is and how well he’s able to communicate with his guys.”
What do you think of Dan Mullen as a head coach after one season?
“I said it before he got here, I think he’s a great coach. I think he’s exactly what this program needed. When he came in, everybody was kind of ‘Ahhh.’ You know, there was other names on the board that people saw a little bit more glitz and glamor, but I think when Urban Meyer came this way, I think the same feeling happened. Everybody was like, ‘OK, a guy from Utah. We’ll see. He put up some points.’ But, I think Mullen was different in the fact that he wants to be the head coach of the University of Florida, and that I can definitely respect. He definitely appreciates the fact that he is the head coach of a place where he wants to be. Every day he gets up, I don’t see anybody that’s as energetic as him or that is trying to get after it to the point to make people better around him than he is. That’s [encouraging] because I’ve gone through my gauntlet of people who, you know, I had a coach there that was there for years in [Steve] Spurrier that was kind of winding it down, and then I had a coach there in Ron Zook that just, quite frankly, was in over his head a little bit. I think Dan Mullen is exactly what this program needs. I think he’s made a lot of strides in his first year. I mean, who would’ve thought the Florida Gators would’ve went 10-3 in their first year? That’s very surprising. I didn’t. And, he had some losses that he easily could’ve won. So, I think year two, there’s obviously more pressure, but I think he does well with pressure. I think he showed that at Mississippi State, he showed that when he was here previously at Florida. Dan is a really, really good coach. He’s a good person as the guys in the program will tell you and as his staff will tell you. I think he has the ability to get the best out of each player he coaches. And really, that’s from Feleipe Franks all the way down to the kicker. I think people love to follow him, and I think year two should be better for him. Coming off a 10-3 year, saying that’s going to be better, that’s pretty high expectations, but I think he has the ability to handle it.”
A lot of people say that Mullen’s scheme is offensive line friendly. What is it about his offense that makes things easier for the offensive line?
“He likes to move the pocket. His run plays aren’t straight power run plays. Now, he does run some power scheme where he has the guards pulling a lot, but he likes to get people on the run where it’s not just straight between the tackles all the time. That’s good for an offensive lineman because if you’re blocking somebody head-up or if you’re double-teaming head-up all the time, that lessens the running lanes and lessens the opportunities of stuff that you’re able to do. For him, whether it be play-action passing, which helps offensive linemen ‘cause if you’re play-action passing, you trick them into a run, it’s going to be a pass. Or, you’re moving the pocket where an offensive lineman doesn’t have to go straight drop-back and block somebody and give up a pressure or a sack. I think that really is a benefit to an offensive line because it’s a guessing game, not so much that you’re trying to trick the opponent but this offense has a lot of multiple things that it could do instead of just one set, simple thing where it forces an offensive lineman into a bad situation. And, guys are encouraged by that kind of stuff. The more you can give a defense to guess at, the less likely they are to beat you on a play, and it’s going to make them think throughout the entire play.”
What are your expectations for the season? Can the Gators challenge Georgia in the SEC East?
“I honestly do think they’re able to challenge Georgia at this point in time. First of all, you’ve got to replace a couple people off of your defense that are going to be missed, but I think they’ll be able to do that. If the offensive line does well, if they’re able to hold up, I think Florida looks at losing maybe one, maybe two games. Now, who’s that going to be? I don’t know. I would love to see Florida go 11-1. I would love to see Florida run the table, but, at some point in time, if Florida can get through some of these woes, if they can make it through some of these tougher games, ‘cause they’re going to come up on a game that they obviously shouldn’t lose, and there’s going to be a dog fight. Whether they win or lose is going to be up to them and the coaching staff, but, expectation-wise, I expect Florida to be in another big-time bowl, another New Year’s Six Bowl. Can they be in the College Football Playoff? Yeah, absolutely. I think they can beat Georgia ‘cause Georgia’s going to be their top competition in the East, but then it’s dealing with that beast that is Alabama or LSU because they see LSU during the season, and both teams have a really good team. So, I really expect to see them in Atlanta in the SEC Championship Game. What they do from there really depends on what happens throughout the season and how well they progress as a team.”
Stay tuned to Inside the Gators for the remaining F-Club series as we talk to more former players about their respective units heading into fall camp.
Inside the Gators F-Club Positional Breakdown series isn't associated with the official University of Florida F-Club