At one point of the Florida Gators victory over the Kentucky Wildcats, 36-year coaching Veteran Mike Summers watched three true freshmen offensive linemen trot out on to the field inside Commonwealth Stadium.
“That’s probably something that can’t be aired in public,” Summers jokingly responded to a question asking what he was thinking watching the scene unfold. “To be honest with you, I was excited about that. That they have given our coaching staff enough confidence that we can put them out there in that situation.”
Two of those freshmen, Fred Johnson and Tyler Jordan have played a lot this season and the third, Martez Ivey, was making his first appearance of the year following arthroscopic surgery on his knee.
Summers has been around the block. He started his coaching career in 1980, more than a decade before most of the players he coaches were even born. He speaks slow and deliberately and doesn’t mince words. Despite his immense coaching experience, the challenge that has presented itself this year is unique.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever been in a situation where we’ve had this few returning players and have to work with a group of younger players and have them in such vital positions that we have right now,” he said of Florida’s offensive line. “I don’t know if I’ve been in that situation.”
He doesn’t use absolutes like that often, but he may be right.
Right now the Florida Gators offense is struggling. When asked on the SEC Coaches’ teleconference if the Gators are working out “kinks” Jim McElwain responded that the reporter was being nice to him by only calling the issues kinks.
Everything in football starts with the offensive line and, frankly, Florida’s offensive line isn’t performing up to their own standards. Florida has seen their rushing yards drop in consecutive games this season as well as their yards per carry total. As the competition level has increased in each game the offensive line has discovered new challenges and a quick look at the calendar shows an even steeper jump in competition coming very soon.
“We’re going to start to play some real D-linemen – glass eaters and fire breathers,” Jim McElwain said. “You’re going to have to get off the ball, paly with pad level and get your second step in the ground snap your hips.”
The Florida Gators offensive line is far from perfect but with so many young players playing pivotal roles, it should be expected that there will be bumps and bruises along he way.
“When you play football at this level every week they’re going to see something that they didn’t see the week before and they’ll either handle it or not handle it and that will be my opportunity to have a teaching moment,” Summers said. “There’s so many things and so much to teach when you start at a fundamental level.”
So the freshmen trio will continue to take their reps. There will be highs and lows throughout the season. They’re far better than they were in the spring or in the summer and, quite frankly, being so young they’re probably going to get better day-by-day and week-by-week. Their production and how they will handle the rigors of the Southeastern Conference are largely unknown.
The line will need to pick up their production if the Gators are going to make it out of the October gauntlet of games intact.
It will be a trial by glass eaters and fire breathers, one that Summers and McElwain hope will only serve to help Florida moving forward.
“Whatever that means right now, these guys are going to be our future,” Summers said. “So as much as we’re going to play them and as much as they’re going to contribute right now that’s only going to mean we’ll be that much better down the road.”