Seven months ago, Florida coach Jim McElwain was looking for anyone to protect his quarterbacks. From pizza delivery boys to media members, Florida’s first-year coach was desperate to find anyone willing to line up in the trenches for a couple of weeks.
Well, where the heck was that group of nobodies on Saturday? More specifically, who is this all of a sudden intimidating group of big boys bullying folks up front?
During the Gators’ furious fourth-quarter comeback win over Tennessee and again on Saturday against Ole Miss’ tenacious defensive front, Florida’s offensive line looked tremendous and kept quarterback Will Grier relatively clean. In the process, Florida has registered 52 points and 500 yards in the last five quarters.
“It’s been a real pleasure to watch us grow,” redshirt senior guard Trip Thurman said. “There have been a lot of questions about our offensive line, and I think the first few games we’ve kind of silenced our doubters.”
Each week, the Gators’ offensive front has made strides, but it took off against Ole Miss’ ferocious front. A defense littered with NFL talent and headlined by future first-round draft pick Robert Nkemdiche was held in check during Florida’s 38-10 dismantling of the third-ranked Rebels.
Outside of two sacks, Grier stood upright most of the night, as he carved up the Rebels for 271 yard and four touchdowns on 24-of-29 passing. The Rebels’ blitz was essentially nonexistent as the game lingered. The more pressure Ole Miss brought, the more Florida overpowered.
“We had their defense dialed up all day,” said senior tackle Mason Halter, who transferred in from Fordham over the summer. “We beat their defense, essentially -- up front and overall.”
This line had to use walk-ons just so the team could have a spring game!
To Thurman, who entered the season as the only player on this line with any experience as an FBS starter (10 starts last season), the transformation of this offensive line began during that injury-plagued spring. When there was no hope for this rag-tag group, Thurman, who missed all of spring with a shoulder injury that some thought might end his football career, said the big boys developed a real big bond. Even if the play wasn’t great, they followed O-line coach Mike Summers, the only holdover from Will Muschamp’s coaching staff.
The process was slow and frustrating, but as trust grew, so did development. As the bodies healed and the numbers grew, Summers started to mix, match and cross-train guys, as communication grew.
After struggling against East Carolina and Kentucky, the Gators’ offensive line sprung to life in the last five quarters. In fact, since the start of the second half of the Tennessee game, Grier has completed 11-of-13 passes for 138 yards and three touchdowns with zero interceptions against the blitz (one sack), according to ESPN Stats & Information.
“We just decided to put our foot in the ground and say enough is enough,” Halter said. “We said we’re going to play this game like we should have all day and protect our asses off.”
If you look at the season as a whole, Florida’s offensive line has actually been statistically better overall than you might think. According to ESPN Stats & Information, teams have pressured (sack or duress) on 20 percent of Florida’s drop backs, which is the same as last year. However, Florida is averaging 7.1 yards per pass in those situations (fourth in the SEC), compared to 2.9 yards (worst in the SEC) last season. On the season, Grier is 26-of-37 for 302 yards and four touchdowns with one interception and three sacks against the blitz.
Florida also amassed their highest passing yardage total (1,270) through its first five games of the season since posting 1,322 yards to start 2007.
McElwain and Summers have seen this uptick in line success by using three true freshmen at times and having a constant rotation during games to mix up combinations and keep guys fresh.
“I would say the biggest thing I see there is they're starting to understand the value of communication,” McElwain said of the offensive line. “We've got to get better on some of the points, and yet, that's on the quarterback as well.”
McElwain’s right. Florida’s getting fewer yards before contact per rush this season, and the Gators are actually surrendering sacks at a higher rate in 2015 (both against blitz and standard rush), according to ESPN Stats & Information. But a handful of sacks have come because of impatience by Grier, who has a tendency to run into trouble at any sign of breakdown from the line.
There are still things that must improve up front, but it’s far better than originally hoping the pizza guy worked out.
“We knew that we were the weak link coming into the season, and it’s been our goal to show that we are very capable,” Halter said. “We were out to prove people wrong, and we have these first few weeks.”