Football is a team game and no other position group epitomizes that quite like the offensive line. Starting with the center, you literally can’t start a play without the offensive line and, while they rarely score touchdowns (unless you’re at Arkansas Razorbacks), or make headlines, the offensive line is one of the most important position groups in the game.
At least five individuals need to play as a cohesive unit or risk having to turn around and peel their quarterback up off the turf. That dazzling 30-yard touchdown run, yeah, you guessed it, the offensive line paves the way for that too.
Unlike other positions the line needs to play as a cohesive unit. Receivers can still go about their business if a running back messes up and vice versa, but the offensive line must operate as a collective. This means the relationships, bonds and communication between five individuals must be in sync at all times and for a unit that could potentially start two true freshmen and a sophomore, that could be hard to come by. Fortunately, Florida has a redshirt senior who can show the new guys the ropes.
“I’m teaching the younger guys what to do. It also is tremendous for me to be a leader,” senior Trip Thurman said. “That’s what I want to be as a veteran o-line. It makes it easier on other guys.”
Thurman isn’t alone in breaking in the new offensive linemen. Mike Summers was the only coach retained by Jim McElwain when he took over as the head coach at Florida and keeping Summers has already paid dividends.
“Offensively he’s been with the guy a long time that is kind of in the same realm of what we kind of have done,” McElwain said of Summers. “For him, with what we’ve brought in, it’s a very easy transition from the terminology, from like plays and all of that kind of stuff. That was a natural. I also felt having that continuity with that o-line group that was here, that was really important moving forward.”
McElwain and Summers added Fordham transfer Mason Halter, who has been working at left tackle — the position he played at Fordham — and center T.J. McCoy as transfers in the offseason. Coupled with the addition of several more freshmen, the Gators appear to have a competent group heading into the season. They are inexperienced. The Florida Gators entered the 2014 season with 66 combined starts between their returning five offensive linemen. This season they will enter with just 10. The familiarity between the offensive linemen isn’t quite where it needs to be yet, but the only thing that will bring that about is time. The group regularly hands out together off the field and on the field, they’re relying on their veteran position coach and two older players to lead them in the right direction.
That might start with conditioning.
“They need to be stronger with the heat. It was hot out there today. We had to adjust practice a little bit and went a little earlier than we had scheduled,” Thurman said. “They know what to do. In the meeting rooms, they’re calling out calls. It’s just the mental part of the game when the heat hits you. When that Florida sun hits you, they need to dig deep and mentally focus on getting the job done.”
With Thurman working out at guard, he has been right next to freshman Tyler Jordan who is working as the backup center currently. Jordan has a chance to earn a starting job this season and his peers already see the little things that he is doing to take one step towards that goal of starting.
“Being a freshman, that center position is key for our offensive line, calling out plays, calling out mike calls,” Thurman said. “It’s a huge challenge for him and I think he’s been up to the challenge so far.”
On the other side, Martez Ivey has been getting work with the first unit at right tackle. The consensus five-star offensive lineman from Apopka has made an immediate impact after showing up on campus over 300 pounds. Ivey and Jordan are the two freshmen with the best chance to earn starting jobs this fall and, according to Thurman, it really isn’t even what they’re doing on the field, so much as the extra mile they’re going off the field that makes all the difference.
“A big thing in wanting to be on the field is wanting to learn the offense, meeting with coach individually and meeting with me individually,” Thurman said. “They’re asking me, ‘hey what about this call? What if the linebacker goes here? What do I do?’ That’s big for the young guys and a lot of the young guys don’t understand that. To get on the field, you have to know exactly what you’re doing. Martez and Tyler have stepped up.”
Thurman has graciously stepped into his role as a leader and Summers has already shown off his coaching chops with the job he did in 2014. The young kids are talented, sure, but the real test for them will be how they react when they’re thrown into the fire and the monsters disguised as SEC defensive linemen start punching.
The group has less than a month to morph from five individuals into one unit. Luckily for whomever wins the starting quarterback job, the offensive line has great leadership to get them where they need to be.