THE OFFENSIVE LINE
This opinion might not be shared by everyone, but for me the top area of concern is still the offensive line. We knew last year was going to be extremely hard and it turned out that way when they had to replace four starters up front and had only two upper classmen, one of which was a lower division transfer. They got by but struggled all season finishing last in the SEC in sacks allowed.
This year it’s a little bit different. Both of those upperclassmen are gone, but the Gators return what amounts to three full-time starters up front. The big issue is having to still rely on youth and inexperience to fill in spots here and there among the depth chart up front.
I think we can safely say that Martez Ivey at left guard is a mainstay as is Tyler Jordan at right guard. David Sharpe has had way more good days than bad at left tackle, he battles consistency at times but has made major inroads in terms of leadership which is a key component to all of this.
Cam Dillard got pushed around a lot as a redshirt sophomore in 2015, but he has made significant strength gains and although he isn’t there yet, he has started on the road to being a much better player.
Those four form a solid group, maybe not spectacular, but there is a chance to get there with them.
Finding the rest of the 4-6 players needed to fill the rotation on the offensive line is going to be the real work right now. That issue was exacerbated with the season ending knee injury to guard Antonio Riles.
McElwain has been pretty positive overall about the offensive line. He sees them maturing and he sees a group that has gotten better. When pressed on Monday about the group, he said there are 9-10 linemen “above the line” and ready to play for this football team in 2016.
“That’s something we talk as a program,” he said. “’Above the line’ simply means every position on the team, because of your actions, you’re worthy of helping this football team come game time. Those guys above the line, ideally I’m thinking we’re back up to about nine, based on some injury things to see if that will bump to 10. Yeah, that’s kind of where we’re rolling right now with it, with a couple of guys. … T. J. (McCoy) backing up at center, Tyler can still play some center. There is some flexibility in some of those spots as well. That’s a good thing.”
Trying to name the other 5-6 can be tricky.
Fredrick Johnson is definitely one of them. He’s been starting most of the fall at right tackle, He has all the tools to be a really good one, but inconsistencies on and off the field have gotten in the way. Knowing that, freshman Jawaan Taylor steps into the mix as well.
McElwain has referred to some players as ‘dead fish’ at times because they sit around all glossy eyed and lost and just getting passed up. He says that Jawaan Taylor is no dead fish and really pushing for a starting spot.
"No, we're getting away from that,” he said of the dead fish analogy with his team, “He's definitely an energizer bunny out there. The good thing is he was really pushing Fred, too, at that spot. There again, competition is something that you need. He's a good player. He's got to learn how to deal with the ankle a little bit and go out and get it."
I think we can assume that Taylor was the injured payer or 10th guy he was talking about above. That means we have four more. T.J. McCoy is one of them as he was mentioned above. He would be number seven.
The talk around has been that the next guard in line to get on the field is redshirt freshman Richerd Desir-Jones. He has come a long way since spring ball and has exerted himself into the mix up front.
That leaves two spots left and those would go to guards Brandon Sandifer and Nick Buchanan. They haven’t blossomed yet and are still a work in progress, but with the injury to Riles, these two are getting some much needed work.
"That's been really helpful,” McElwain said of the extra work for the young guys. “And yet, 'Ton was playing great. What it has (done) is forced us again to work some flexibility pieces at some of the spots. But really, more than that, it's an opportunity for Sandifer and Buchanan to kind of step up and say, 'It's time.' Really put some challenge on some of those guys who just maybe are a little unsure. But you know what, if we just go fast and go hard and not hold back you're going to have an opportunity to make a difference and be a difference for the team.
As you talk to guys what happens sometimes is guys are so stuck on depth charts. What depth charts are, are a way to organize practice. What they don't understand is it's a way to be able to put people at different spots during practice based on those colors or numbers or whatever you use in your program. But it's an ever-changing thing based on your actions and your ability to perform whatever task you're asking them to do -- at a high level. And sometimes guys get, 'Well I'm just on this,' rather than, 'No, let me show that I can move up to that next one and compete and take that spot.' I think kind of that open door there for some more spots, for lack of a better term, I think has helped those guys, and yet that's really not the right mindset. And I think too often guys get left in that rut and don't realize, you know what, you're responsible for your own actions to get moved up. That's what I've seen from a couple of those spots.”
That was a clear message to guys like Sandifer and Buchanan to get the lead out and on board the train before it passes you by, and yet they are among the ten guys he plans on having ready to play in the fall… at least at this point.
They start five offensive linemen and they are completely comfortable with four. They need 10 to be strong, so there is work to do.
DEPTH AT CORNER
Like the offensive line, injuries have hit the cornerback position, at least one and with the lack of overall numbers, they just can’t handle much more.
Freshman C.J. McWilliams was performing well before tearing his ACL last week. He wasn’t in line to unseat a starter, but was heading in the right direction to play in his rookie year.
The corner position is way different in terms of the starters. While the line is still looking for a piece to start up front, the corners/ NICKELS have a trio in Jalen Tabor, Quincy Wilson, and Duke Dawson that would be mentioned with anyone in the country as a starting group.
Behind them are three guys. Sophomore Chris Williamson has performed well this fall. Freshman McArthur Burnett arrived early from high school in January, and is a talented man-coverage defender, but struggles when in zone. Junior college transfer Joseph Putu arrived just before fall practice started. He is expected to play this year.
That is really it. They will be forced to play freshman Chauncey Gardner more at NICKEL than originally planned and McElwain mentioned Monday that freshman safety Jeawon Taylor will be asked to play some NICKEL as well.
That is some scary small numbers for the secondary. Quincy Wilson and Duke Dawson missed practice on Monday giving the younger and less experienced guys some extra reps. McElwain was asked about the young guys getting those reps.
“And Jeawon Taylor as well at some nickel, you know we’ve got some pretty good depth on that inside piece (at safety). “But you know, it allows us not to get him on the corner, get Joseph Putu, who obviously is well behind from no spring or no summer, getting here just this August, those guys are able to get a ton of reps at corner. And Chauncey as well, his ability in the coverage piece, not to screw him up with the safety communication, but it actually helps him seeing it from the corner, cause now he can say ‘Oh, oh okay, I kinda see that’. Kinda like what we did with Marcus (Maye) a little bit in the spring. I think anytime you can do that, as a cross-piece for those different spots, they kinda learn how important it is to be talking the same language.”
Unlike the offensive line where there are bodies slotted for positions, at corner they have to move some over to help with the depth. It isn’t necessarily the position they would like to be in, but it is a place where they need to stay healthy.