It’s now or never for Gators’ offensive line

Oct 2, 2019 | 0 comments

After watching yet another lackluster showing by his offensive line hold back the entire offense against Towson, Dan Mullen challenged the unit.

“The mental toughness of the offensive line in their preparation has got to improve as we move forward,” he said after the 38-0 win. “I know John [Hevesy] gets on them. They’re young guys. They go, ‘Coach, I’m working.’ No, you’re not, obviously not, because if you were working, we wouldn’t have missed assignments, so what you’re doing is not enough. They need to do more.

“Guys have got to learn what’s the best way they learn, what’s the best way they can improve at processing information as they get going, and they got to do it. And if they don’t, then they’re not going to get better, and then we got to find somebody that can.”

On Saturday, they’ll face an even more daunting challenge. The No. 7 Auburn Tigers will roll into the Swamp with a defensive line that is regarded as one of the top lines in the country. They’re allowing just 95.2 rushing yards per game, third best in the SEC. They’re fourth in the conference with 13 sacks. They’re chocked full of NFL talent, depth and experience, as the entire two-deep is comprised of juniors and seniors.

“We just got to play with tempo and just our fundamentals,” left tackle Stone Forsythe said. “Got to get our feet in the ground, hands on them, just stop their penetration up front.”

The Tigers’ (5-0, 2-0 SEC) headliner is tackle Derrick Brown. The senior was named Second Team All-SEC after the 2018 season and was projected as a possible early round draft pick. He decided to return to school and has picked up where he left off. At Texas A&M two weeks ago, he racked up three tackles-for-loss and two sacks.

“This is probably one of the best ones in 15 years I’ve been in this league,” offensive line coach John Hevesy said. “That’s one of the best ones I’ve seen, just as a group of four or some of the backups, the twos that go in there, there’s not much of a letdown. So to me, there’s about eight guys that go and play, and [we] have to be ready for all of them.”

The offensive linemen have responded to Mullen’s challenge well so far this week, Hevesy said.

“My guys are starting to understand this is what it takes,” he said. “Yesterday’s practice, today’s practice, you see that OK, we’re getting our scout team to emulate as best they can, but you see my guys go, ‘OK, yesterday was good, today is good. I’m understanding what I have to do.’ So obviously, I hope that continues through the week and on Saturday.”

Playing against a supremely talented and deep defensive front is nothing new to Mullen and the Gators. A year ago, they took on a Mississippi State defense that featured future NFL draft picks Montez Sweat, Jeffery Simmons and Gerri Green. Mullen schemed around the mismatch by calling a bunch of quick throws to the perimeter to keep them off balance and get them out of their rhythm.

Mullen was quick to point out, however, that while the talent level and depth between the 2018 Bulldogs and 2019 Tigers are similar, their defensive schemes are not, so it’s not just as simple as copying the game plan.

For weeks now, UF (5-0, 2-0) has insisted that their issues up front are not a problem with talent. They believe that miscommunications and missed assignments are holding the unit back. Four guys might be doing exactly what they’re supposed to on a given play, but the fifth guys whiffs on his assignment and blows the entire play up.

“There’s little things that we’ve seen on film that if we had just done this right, it’s a touchdown, and that’s been all season,” Forsythe said.

Mullen said he’s never been disappointed with the effort his offensive linemen give; they just don’t know what it takes to have success at this level.

“They’ve got to know a sense of urgency,” he said. “I think that’s the biggest one. They’re not bad guys. They may work hard. They’re good guys. They try to put in the time. What they’ve got to understand is what putting in the time means. Hey, we’ve got to practice. But what are you doing when you leave here? What extra things are you doing to make sure you’re improving? And making sure they understand what they need to do. What they’re currently doing is not enough.”

Up to this point in the season, the Gators’ poor offensive line play hasn’t hurt them. They’ve been able to overcome the blocking issues by throwing the ball well and using the receivers in the running game. They likely won’t be able to overcome another lifeless, uninspiring performance against Auburn.

“They’re going to try to knock us back; we got to try to knock them back,” Hevesy said. “We have to be great fundamentally. We got to be great playing with our legs and with a base and just be physical back with them.”

As defensive tackle Kyree Campbell pointed out on Monday, it’s “big-boy ball” now. For the Gators to beat Auburn and keep their championship aspirations alive, the offensive line needs to grow up now.

“We have to run the ball,” Forsythe said. “I mean, we haven’t really proved our self as an O-Line. We can make a name for our self and start running the ball and pass-blocking better.”

They’ve been challenged, criticized, beaten down and ridiculed by their fans all season on social media. Saturday’s their chance to change the entire narrative.

It’s time for the offensive line to get up and go.

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