Veteran offensive line looks to create more balance

Sep 16, 2020 | 0 comments

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That the Gators’ offensive line struggled in 2019 shouldn’t have been a surprise to most observers. They lost all five starters from one of the SEC’s most productive lines in 2018 and returned minimal playing experience.

Still, not even the most pessimistic of fans could’ve foreseen the nosedive that the unit experienced. They paved the way for just 129.8 rushing yards per game, second-worst in the SEC, and 4.2 yards per carry. Even those abysmal statistics were skewed upward a bit by a handful of long touchdown runs. Their poor blocking led to Feleipe Franks’ season-ending leg injury and Kyle Trask’s sprained knee. It basically was a nightmarish season.

Flash forward to 2020, and most of the pieces are in place for Florida to field one of the best offenses in the country. They have an experienced and highly productive quarterback in Trask, two experienced running backs in Dameon Pierce and Malik Davis, a superstar tight end in Kyle Pitts and a bevy of talented wide receivers. All that’s missing is an adequate offensive line.

Trask averaged nearly 280 passing yards per game in his 10 starts last season, and that was with virtually no running game to keep defenses honest. Imagine what he can do against defenses that have to put more guys in the box to stop the run.

“It’s been a big focus to me with the kids,” offensive line coach John Hevesy said. “We have to be balanced. We have to be able to run the ball to be successful. Running the ball gives us our opportunity to be a great play-action team and to be able to throw the ball. Everything for us is just to stay ahead of the chains, ahead of schedule, which means, we run the ball on first down, we’ve got to get four yards. We’ve got to be efficient. The big runs will happen, but I think the biggest thing for us in the run game is to get four yards on every run play.”

Hevesy believes there wasn’t one glaring problem with the unit last season but rather a bunch of little mistakes on a lot of plays caused by their inexperience were to blame, such as not finishing blocks, miscommunications, missed steps and not processing information fast enough.

This year, the Gators return four starters and add Stewart Reese, a graduate transfer who started 34 games at Mississippi State. They’re banking on that experience to make a huge difference this season.

“One of the big keys to the offensive line is communication,” head coach Dan Mullen said. “The more veteran guys in there, the more comfortable they are with what’s going on, the easier it is for them to communicate. It makes it a lot easier for everybody.”

Added redshirt senior Stone Forsythe: “Everyone knows what [Hevesy] expects and stuff like that. So, it’s another year under our belt of the same offense and just different schemes. So, I think it’ll help greatly.”

The addition of Reese has been particularly impactful. He’s a 6-foot-5, 350-pound road grader who played for Mullen and Hevesy for two seasons at Mississippi State and has the flexibility to play both guard and tackle. He’s expected to start at one of the guard spots. He’s also valuable because of the selfless attitude and leadership he’s brought to the position.

“With having a lot of young guys between Ethan [White], Kingsley [Eguakun], Michael [Tarquin], Will [Harrod] and all those young guys, ‘Here’s how you prepare,’” Hevesy said. “They can watch him because he doesn’t have an ego to say, ‘Hey, I’m here for this’ or ‘I’m here for that.’ They can talk to him, and he’ll give them everything he’s got so they can learn from him, which has been great to have.”

Forsythe is another versatile player the Gators will be counting on upfront. He started every game at left tackle last year but struggled against the more athletic defensive ends he matched up against. He may start at right tackle this season.

“The biggest thing I’ve seen with Stone is just a very intelligent kid on the football field, very high in football intelligence,” Hevesy said. “I think the one thing you see is just using his hands and just playing with quicker, harder hands and a little harder, quicker feet. That was the big thing we were going into the offseason working on.”

While having to teach his players virtually over the spring and summer was far from ideal, Hevesy thinks they had a very productive offseason given the limitations.

“You see the mental part of the game has really accelerated for them,” Hevesy said. “Maybe it’s just sitting for six months on Zoom meetings; they saw enough of that to help them with that. That might be the best benefit of the whole COVID, of being on those Zoom meetings. They saw more film and more clips than they ever saw in their life.”

From a physical standpoint, Hevesy was concerned that his players would do his drills incorrectly over the summer and he would have to correct five months’ worth of bad habits once they got back on campus. So, he decided to just give them two or three things to work on each day with detailed instructions and video demonstrations. They’ve looked improved at those little things that plagued them last year so far this fall, he said.

Up to this point in the fall, the defense has given the offensive line a lot of different looks and has thrown just about every pressure and stunt in the book at them. They’ve done a great job of learning how to attack the various defenses and not repeating their mistakes, he said. They’ve had very few missed assignments and seem to have a better understanding of why they’re doing certain things against different looks and the defense’s pre-snap movements.

The line welcomed in three freshmen this offseason – Richie Leonard, Gerald Mincey and Josh Braun – and the teaching was a little bit different for them this summer, Hevesy said. Whereas the veterans were able to work on specific technique things, Hevesy used Zoom to teach them the very basics of the offense so that they would know what to do once fall camp began. They then spent the early portions of the fall working on fundamentals and blocking assignments on different plays. Once the pads went on, they shifted to working on the specific blocking techniques of the position.

Brett Heggie, Jean Delance, Forsythe and Reese have become huge components in the development of the three freshmen.

“Those four upperclassmen have become great leaders for my young guys,” he said. “Now it’s the young guys, obviously, check your ego and then make sure you’re always listening to the older guys because they have the experience.”

The long offseason is almost over, but another challenge awaits on the horizon. The Gators open the season against Ole Miss on Sept. 26. The Rebels have an entirely new defensive coaching staff, and the Gators can only make an educated guess at what they’ll do defensively. The offensive line has seen almost everything imaginable from the defense in practice; now it’s just a matter of pulling a few specific concepts from those practices and applying them against a different opponent.

“For us, the biggest focus is obviously just do what we do and stay with our base fundamentals, and we should be fine,” Hevesy said. “We can’t overthink and over-evaluate it because we don’t know what they’re doing. We have an idea, obviously, what they’re going to be doing, but to me, we’ve just got to hang on our fundamentals and hang on what we do as an offense.”

If they do, this offense could be ready to take off.

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