On paper, the No. 8 Florida Gators should easily defeat the Miami Hurricanes in Orlando on Saturday. The Gators are simply more talented and deeper at almost every position.
In 2018, Miami ranked 105th in the country in total offense. On Saturday, they’ll be breaking in a new head coach, a new offensive coordinator, a freshman quarterback and two freshmen tackles. Defensively, their defensive backs will likely have their hands full as they try to stay with the Gators’ loaded wide receiver corps.
The one thing the Hurricanes have that could allow them to pull off the upset is a defensive front-seven that could be one of the nation’s best. Last season, they ranked fourth in total defense, first in passing defense, ninth in sacks and first in tackles-for-loss per game.
Up front, they’re led by junior end Jonathan Garvin. He racked up 60 tackles, 17 tackles-for-loss, 5.5 sacks and five pass breakups in 2018. He’s considered one of the top linemen in the country, and he’ll likely be a high draft pick at the end of the season.
Preseason Second Team AP All-American Shaquille Quarterman headlines a nasty group of linebackers. He has started all 39 games since he stepped on campus in 2016. He had six sacks and 14 tackles-for-loss a year ago.
“They’re big, they’re fast and they’re physical, which is most Division I defensive lines,” UF center Nick Buchanan said. “We play in the SEC, so we’re used to a week-in, week-out of some dogs. They got some dogs, but we’re just going to go out there, take care of the little things, execute, do our technique, and we’re going to trust what we got.”
Simply put, UM’s defensive front is good enough that they can take over the game and cancel out UF’s advantages on the rest of the field.
Of course, the Gators’ offensive line is determined to not let that happen.
Florida offensive line coach John Hevesy said the key is simply going to be executing the game plan. It doesn’t matter what the Hurricanes do or don’t do; if his linemen communicate the calls with each other and do their jobs at a high level, they’ll be just fine.
Of course, that’ll be a lot easier said than done given the fired-up neutral site environment they’re going to play in.
“We just got to keep our poise,” Hevesy said. “We can’t shoot our self in the foot, biggest thing. You’re going to get knocked down, you’re going to do something wrong. That’s going to happen. Play the next play. Whatever happens, have quick amnesia. Get ready to play the next play, if we just don’t shoot our self in the foot with stupid penalties.”
While Florida’s offensive line is replacing four starters from last season, it’s not like they’re replacing them with freshmen that haven’t played before. Four of the five probable starters are redshirt juniors or seniors. The Gators feel good about the starting five.
Buchanan said going against one of the nation’s premier defensive lines in practice will have them prepared to take on an equally daunting Miami front.
“Every day, I feel like I need to bring it because if I don’t bring it, I’m going to come out here and get embarrassed in front of the whole team,” he said. “I think [the defensive linemen] feel the same way. Every single day is about competition. It’s what [Dan] Mullen preaches. We come out here and we compete.”
The quality of play they’ll get from the reserves, on the other hand, is a big question mark.
The second unit was young entering the fall, and it’s gotten even younger. With Noah Banks’ decision to retire from football due to medical concerns, the second unit consists of four freshmen and a former walk-on. Buchanan said the younger players made great strides over the off-season, and he’s not concerned about the depth.
“You got to trust everything you’ve been taught at this point because this is everything you’ve worked for,” he said. “You can’t look back. So, all the guys, everyone has moved up because basically when one person moves up, everyone moves up. Everybody has been doing a good job handling that adversity and stepping up to the challenge.”
Hevesy said he feels comfortable with playing 6-8 guys in games. Now the challenge is to turn that into nine or 10 dependable players.
The biggest change in the younger linemen is that they’re starting to grasp the mental part of the position a little more, Buchanan said. That knowledge allows them to use their natural abilities in a way that’s beneficial for them and the team.
“The guys in the meeting room [are] answering questions left and right,” he said. “They understand the game plan. They understand our offense versus our defense in camp, and then during Miami camp, they are transferring that over and applying to Miami’s defense and how they play. I got to shout out a kudos to them because those are some smart guys when it comes to that side.”
In particular, redshirt freshman tackle Richard Gouraige has apparently stepped up his game the past couple of weeks and impressed his teammates.
“That’s a kid y’all going to want to look out for,” defensive tackle Kyree Campbell said. “He’s aggressive. He’s very, very aggressive.”
Buchanan said Gouraige has always had the talent. He just needed to get some more reps in practice to blossom.
“All you do those redshirt years is taking reps, taking reps, taking reps,” Buchanan said. “He went into spring and summer doing individual drills by himself, even through camp. Eventually, with all those reps, you start to think a bit more and start applying that to the actual field. So, Rich has done a great job taking the things that he’s been taught and that he’s learned and applying that on the practice field.”
Left guard Brett Heggie said Gouraige’s work ethic has caught his attention.
“He works hard, and he takes everything super serious,” he said. “That’s the one thing that I do like. He is all business when he is inside the building. That’s the biggest thing with him and keep getting better every day. I was just talking to him after practice about it. He is just one of those guys that is going to be a big name for us soon or in the future because of how hard he works."
Heggie added that Gouraige seems to have the fundamentals down a little better now, and he’s doing a better job of not over-thinking things and just playing.
Despite the big challenge UF’s offensive line faces on Saturday, Buchanan is confident they’ll come out on top because of how hard they worked on the fundamentals and small details during the off-season.
“When we get to gameday, we trust the work that we put in,” he said. “We are not going to win the game on Saturday; we started winning this game way back in January when we started the off-season conditioning. So, that’s what it is all about. It’s not about being comfortable going into game week. It’s about going into game week and feeling comfortable with all the work you have done up to this point and trusting that when you get out there that your technique will show. At that point, it’s the show and it’s time to play some football.”