Florida Gators National Signing Day preview: offensive line

Florida needs to have a great February signing day at two position groupings, one of them being offensive line. The Gators have a good number of linemen coming back, but there just isn’t enough trusted quality in the pipeline for the team to be where it wants to be. So after looking at quarterback, running back, and receivers and tight ends, here’s the breakdown for the big guys up front.

All recruiting rankings come from the 247 Sports Composite, which balances recruiting rankings from all of the major services.

  • Departing: Antonio Riles, Kadeem Telfort
  • Returning: RSR Kavaris Harkless, RSR Andrew Mike, SR Martez Ivey, SR Fred Johnson, SR Tyler Jordan, RJR Nick Buchanan, RJR T.J. McCoy, JR Jawaan Taylor, RSO Stone Forsythe, RSO Brett Heggie, RFR TJ Moore
  • Newly eligible: RSO Jean Delance
  • Signed: Noah Banks, JUCO 3-star (0.8871); Chris Bleich, 3-star (0.8817)
  • Committed: Richard Gouraige, 4-star (0.9572)
  • Targets: Nicholas Petit-Frere, 5-star (0.9890), William Barnes, 4-star (0.9754), Ed Montilus, 3-star (0.8742)

I will start by noting that Florida hasn’t released a 2018 roster yet — naturally, since the second National Signing Day is still in the future — so there is some clarity yet to be had with some of these guys.

For instance, UF listed Riles as a redshirt junior last year after he redshirted in 2013 and missed all of 2016 due to injury. That indicates that he would have another year of eligibility left with a sixth-year waiver from the NCAA. However, he has graduated and participated in Senior Day in November, which would indicate that he’s done. I list him as departing for that reason.

Not counting the suspended Telfort, the Gators had 12 scholarship offensive linemen at the start of 2017. On top of that being a relatively low number of O-linemen, the coaches only felt comfortable with playing half of them: the starting lineup of Ivey, Heggie, McCoy, Johnson, and Taylor with Jordan as the utility guy who could step in anywhere if needed. And even then, Jordan sometimes would replace Johnson, who has never been able to play well enough to lock down a starting spot.

Riles’s apparent departure is offset by Delance, a 4-star (0.9457) transfer from Texas who sat out 2017 and will be eligible this year. That means, barring someone we don’t know about leaving, the Gators will have 12 scholarship linemen returning before the 2018 class’s additions are counted.

Getting Ivey back in a somewhat surprising development was a big boost to the line. It certainly gives John Hevesy more options as he decides what to do. Though Ivey came in as a tackle and started at left tackle most of last year, he’s played far more at guard and closed the year there as injuries mounted.

Given his own past history with getting dinged up, Ivey’s true future could be at guard instead of tackle. He very well could be the starting left guard if either Delance or Banks, who’ll be a redshirt junior this year, can step up and win a tackle spot. Solving the question at right guard by sliding Heggie over there for a year while Ivey handles left guard would be a plus.

Because so much is returning from last season, this year’s signing class aside from Banks is largely about preparing for the future. Some young guys could get pressed into service given that a number of the returning guys simply aren’t SEC-caliber players, and of course Dan Mullen wouldn’t mind if new arrivals were so good as to unseat the incumbents. It’s not like last year’s line was a bunch of world beaters, after all.

Bleich is a Mullen guy, as he was one of the new boss’s first commitments after coming to Gainesville. Mullen was after him while he was still at Mississippi State, and the big tackle from Pennsylvania flipped from UCLA to become a Gator.

The weekend of January 26 will be the big one for this position, as UF could have as many as all four of Gouraige, Petit-Frere, and the Apopka teammates Barnes and Montilus visiting that weekend. UF will be looking to end up with at least two of those four.

Gouraige has visited Clemson and may visit Auburn this weekend, so Florida doesn’t have him wrapped up by any means. He’s a bit light and so is unlikely to be an immediate impact guy, but if signed, he’d be the highest-rated offensive lineman the Gators have netted since Ivey.

That is, of course, barring Florida signing the 5-star Petit-Frere. Mullen is going up against the elite for him, as Petit-Frere is visiting Alabama this weekend, has interest in Notre Dame, and will go to Ohio State on February 2.

Securing his commitment would be huge for the program, as it’d be a victory for Mullen over the reigning champs and his old boss. It would also be an assertion of strength in the home state to get the Tampa product, and he’d be UF’s first Composite 5-star at any position since 2015. Barnes wouldn’t be a bad consolation prize, as he’s rated slightly higher than Gouraige and is yet another prized tackle recruit the Gators are in on.

If the Gators can keep Gouraige and end up with Barnes or even Petit-Frere, it’ll be a huge win for the program. They’d be getting instant depth and perhaps an instant starter with Banks, a guy who from Mullen’s perspective is probably an underrated gem in Bleich, and then a pair of blue chip prospects to build on with the February signees. Plus, Delance becoming eligible now is like picking up a top JUCO transfer.

Offensive line has been a mess since the dawning of the Will Muschamp era. We were told that it was going to be the strength of the team last year, but it was exposed as yet another pedestrian outfit in the opener against Michigan. It did improve some as the year went along, but it began to fall apart late as the starters got hurt.

UF can’t keep trying to get by hoping they get some nice surprises because a 3-star happens to play like a 4-star some of the time. The talent level along the line is just not that high, with Ivey being the only 5-star and Moore, who redshirted as a freshman last year, and Delance the only 4-stars in the unit.

The good news is that Mullen isn’t continuing that thread, as he’s trying hard to keep Gouraige and angling for big fish in Petit-Frere and Barnes. He just has to close the deal.