They are a year older. Will they be a year better?
If there is a key to Florida’s football success in 2016, it starts with that question about the offensive line. Will they be a year better? They have to be if Florida is to come anywhere close to the 10 wins produced last year in Jim McElwain’s first season at the helm.
Florida’s offensive line gave up 45 sacks last year, which resulted in 274 lost yards. Now, no offensive line is going to go an entire season without giving up a sack, but 45 for -274 is ridiculous. Over at Arkansas, only 14 sacks were allowed for -92 yards. Plug in the Arkansas numbers to Florida’s ground game last year (sacks are counted as a rushing attempt and the yards lost are taken from the rushing yardage totals) and Florida’s yards per rush attempt goes from 3.48 per carry to 3.94. A half yard per attempt may not look like much on paper but it actually is huge.
In defense of O-line coach Mike Summers and his unit last year, they had a cumulative 10 starts between them when the season started last year and all 10 belonged to Trip Thurman. This year the numbers are much better – a combined 43 starts with 13 belonging to left tackle David Sharpe and 11 to center Cam Dillard. There is also much more depth as there are eight guys who have actually played in a game on the roster and there are five redshirt freshmen who spent last year learning the system and another four incoming freshmen.
It’s a far better situation than last year on paper. But, will it be a better situation on the field?
“Offensively, it all starts up front,” McElwain said Wednesday at Florida’s media day. “You guys know that. I've talked about that from the start. We had some guys kind of learn by fire a little bit last year, and to see what they learned and to see how they piece together, is really going to show where we are going to go offensively.”
The O-line should be helped by the play of the quarterbacks. Both Luke Del Rio and Austin Appleby showed in the spring they have the combination of a quick release and a good understanding of where to go with the football. A tenth of a second may not seem like much, but it’s eternity when you’re a left tackle and you’re dealing with one of those athletic freaks coming off the edge that you see every single week in the Southeastern Conference. The last six games of 2015 were played with Treon Harris at QB and while he did his best and at times performed admirably in difficult situations, no one will ever equate the terms quick release and decisiveness with him.
So, having a better QB will help.
And it should also help that the three guys who will probably be a running back by committee – Jordan Cronkrite, Jodan Scarlett and Mark Thompson – are a step quicker and more explosive than Kelvin Taylor. Kelvin was a fine between the tackles runner who could occasionally find some daylight for a big gainer. These three guys have the burst to make that possible every time they touch the ball.
Go back to that thought about a split second. That back who can in a split second turn what might have been a 5-yard gain into a 25-yard gain can make an offensive line look very, very good.
Add the variables of more experience up front, a quicker release/decisive QB and quicker running backs into the offensive equation and it stands to reason that the Gators have the potential to be an improved offensive team.
And if they are improved offensively, then the defense will be better. McElwain loves big plays as much as any coach, but he also understands that you play defense with your offense. When your offense is controlling the football and grinding out at least one or two first downs every possession, you (a) make it possible that punter Johnny Townsend can flip the field and pin opponents deep inside their own territory and (b) the defense can stay fresher for a longer period of time since they’re not required to play as many snaps.
“I look at it as efficiency in staying on the field,” McElwain said. “Obviously being successful keeping your defense off the field by not only prolonging series, but you know, the three-and-outs thing just kills you, all right.”
We measure defenses by their ability to create three-and-outs to hand the ball back over to the offense. Mac measures his offense the same way. If the offense is avoiding the three-and-out, then the defense will be far more efficient and this is a defense, which will carry on that Florida tradition of giving up the yards grudgingly and giving the offense more opportunities.
If there is a key to the development of this year’s offensive line, McElwain points to left tackle David Sharpe, who played as a backup during his freshman year of 2014 and started 13 of 14 games last season. There was a learning curve in Sharpe’s sophomore season. He had games when he looked as good as any LT in the SEC and there were games when it seemed he was always a half step slow cutting off that speed rusher coming off the edge.
Sharpe has the kind of size (6-6, 357) that can make him a road grader in the running game. If experience has allowed him to gain an extra split second in his ability to hinder the speed guys, then he could live up to the preseason hype that saw the SEC coaches vote him second team on their preseason All-SEC selections.
“To me the big key is the development and maturity of David Sharpe on a day-to-day, play-to-play basis,” McElwain said. “And what I've seen out of him from a leadership standpoint is something that I think is really good, and you know, just looking at them, they have grown up a little bit. And how they hang together, how they communicate together, I think those are all things that help you be successful.”
Not the comments about leadership.
Every outstanding offensive line that has ever existed had what Bear Bryant termed a “bell cow.” That’s the guy whose on-the-field productivity set the standard for everybody else on the O-line. When you have that one guy who you know is going to get the job done play after play, it becomes the hard working example that the others will follow.
The way Mac describes the situation, as David Sharpe goes, so will Florida’s offensive line and if they’re able to get the job done, then his offense will have a chance to significantly improve from last year when the Gators were able to produce only 23.2 points and 334 yards per game, both numbers on the bottom feeder end of the SEC scale. More revealing is yards per as in yards per play (5.11), yards per pass attempt (7.2) and yards per rush (3.48). While the only stat that really counts is PF as in points for, the only way you’re going to see significant improvement in that area is if the yards per improves.
And it will start up front with David Sharpe at LT, Martez Ivey at LG, Cam Dillard at C, either Tyler Jordan or Antonio Riles at RG and Fred Johnson at RT.
These guys are all a year older. Again, the big question is will they be a year better?
GATORS MAKE PRESEASON TOP 25
The Amway Coaches Poll has been released with Alabama (no shock there) at #1, joined by five other SEC teams including the Florida Gators at #25.
Here is the top 25 poll (SEC teams in bold face):
4. Florida State
5. Ohio State
9. Notre Dame
11. Michigan State
12. Ole Miss
17. Southern Cal
19. Oklahoma State
20. North Carolina
Dismissed running back Jovon Robinson says it’s not all fun and games at Auburn. Talking to AL.com, Robinson said, “I was stereotyped and disrespected. The football players are not happy with this.” Is this sour grapes or a sign that the cracks in Auburn football are about to become crevices?
Missouri is going to have to rely on its defense this year, but two D-line starters are gone. Tackle Harold Brantley, who missed all last season because of an injury, is academically ineligible, and rush end Walter Brady, who led all freshmen in the nation in sacks last year (7), has been booted from the team because he violated a team policy.
Lorenzo Nunez, who started some games as a true freshman QB last year, has officially moved to wide receiver where he could make an impact. Deebo Samuel is South Carolina’s most experienced returning WR with 12 catches for 161 yards and 1 TD last year.
QUESTION OF THE DAY
When you look at the personnel, particularly up front, do you see the Gators significantly improving on last year’s 23.2 points and 334 yards per game? Can you see the Gators scoring at least 30 a game and improving to somewhere around 400 yards per game?
MUSIC FOR TODAY
Incognito is one of the more entertaining jazz/funk bands in the business. This is one of those bands that is far better live than they will ever be in the studio. Today’s music is a New Year’s Eve performance in Tblisi, Georgia (the country not the state) in 2013.