An offensive line turnaround or more of the same?

The outlook for the Gators’ offensive line next season depends on if you’re a glass-half-full or a glass-half-empty kind of person.

On one hand, they return three starters and their top two reserves from a season ago. Because of how important cohesion and stability is to an offensive line’s success, this unit is poised to take a large step forward this year. The backups should also be much further along after getting a full offseason in this year.

However, UF’s offensive line has been a train wreck at times the past two seasons, particularly in the ground game. They finished eighth in the SEC in yards per rush in 2020 after finishing 11th the year prior. Third-and-1 became a passing down the past two years. So, is it really an advantage to return five key contributors?

The Gators better hope it’s an advantage. With UF transitioning back to more of a run-first attack this season under the command of quarterback Emory Jones, the offensive line making significant progress this offseason will be of the utmost importance. Offensive line coach John Hevesy is optimistic in the group he has to work with.

“I feel good,” Hevesy said. “I’m never overly confident about anything, especially right now, but I feel confident because the guys you’ve got back are guys that have been around, that have worked. They’re playing for a reason. They’ve worked their tails off to get there. They’re meticulous, and they’re constantly on their work. To me, with those guys, it’s really fine-tuning a lot of things and making sure they understand completely why they’re doing things and to get better at all those things.”

The strength of the line figures to be in the middle. Ethan White, Stewart Reese and Josh Braun weigh a combined 1,052 pounds. You’d like to think that half a ton worth of men can move the line of scrimmage for a yard or two in short-yardage situations if nothing else.

“Pretty big, which I think is part of the whole deal to running the ball and moving those inside guys to run downhill – inside zone, outside zone stuff,” Hevesy said. “There’s some mass in there to move guys, to learn to be physical all the time. It’s not being nice guys because they’re big guys. It’s using that force and power that you have.”

White, Braun and Reese are all but guaranteed to start barring injury, but their exact positions are still to be determined. Reese played right guard last year, but he also played left guard and right tackle at Mississippi State. Braun served as Reese’s backup last year and filled in for him after he injured his shoulder against Georgia. White was expected to be UF’s starting center last year before a preseason knee injury derailed his season. Hevesy said Reese is getting a bunch of work at center this spring, and he anticipates White getting some more work at the position toward the end of spring.

Reese is ready to play center in the fall if he’s asked to do it.

“One of the biggest things Coach Hevesy and Coach [Dan] Mullen always preach is versatility and being able to move around and being able to play multiple positions,” Reese said. “So, for me, it just adds more to the arsenal.”

Hevesy is also excited about having a veteran left tackle to work with in Richard Gouraige. Gouraige primarily played left guard during his first three years with the program but has moved back to his more natural position this spring. Hevesy doesn’t expect there to be any drop off after losing Stone Forsythe from the 2020 squad.

“I think Richard played a lot in fall camp, mostly all of fall camp last fall camp at tackle and then towards the end of camp started moving back in towards guard, so he’s got a lot of reps at left tackle,” he said. “He’s done a great job so far. A very knowledgeable kid. To me, just very meticulous about his work ethic. Everything he does, he’s studying film, he’s constantly on it. I feel very comfortable. He’s had a year, close to a year and a half of playing time. Him being in the game doesn’t really bother me because he’s got that game experience.”

The only real question mark is right tackle. There’s no way to sugarcoat it. Jean Delance has played terribly the past two years. He’s gotten run over in the running game, and he doesn’t even look like he knows who to block half of the time in pass protection. He’s also committed too many penalties. Don’t shoot the messenger for this, but Hevesy said he has seen growth in Delance over their time working together.

“Two years ago playing, I think he was still looking around and saying, ‘Am I right?’” he said. “Last year, what you saw, and he still can improve on it, you saw a lot more of it last year, like anybody, they have their little moments where it’s ‘OK, I’m not sure of this,’ but I think he improved drastically. And now he needs to improve more to where you can be physical in your sets and not worry about little things that you don’t have to worry about.”

Reese and Delance were expected to leave after last season but decided to take advantage of the NCAA’s decision to award all players an extra season of eligibility due to the challenges associated with the pandemic. Mullen is excited about the extra depth their returns have afforded them.

“It’s huge,” Mullen said. “You look at the scenario, we suffered some injuries last year that hurt some of the depth. You end up mixing up the rotation. Obviously, when you have depth, it gives you an opportunity to maybe absorb if there’s an injury, stuff that goes on during the season. It is a long year and how to deal with those things. The added depth certainly adds a lot.”

Of course, Gator fans have heard this story before. The offensive line was expected to massively improve in the running game last year. They did for about half a season before fading away down the stretch and looking like the same beleaguered unit from 2019. Once again, the Gators believe this will be the year that the offensive line breaks out.

“They’re making calls quicker,” running back Dameon Pierce said. “The tempo is faster. Not a lot of guys are thinking. They’re reacting off the defense and making the right calls. We’re not missing much. But it’s practice. We’re just creasing out everything and just trying to get everything fine-tuned for the first game.”

This time, the Gators need this storyline to come true. They’re not going to have Kyle Trask dropping back to pass 40 times per game and getting the ball out of his hands quickly anymore. Making the offensive line a nonfactor in the outcome of a game will no longer be a viable strategy. If they only average 4.3 yards per carry again in 2021, the offense will struggle big time.

The hopes of the 2021 Gators offense – and the 2021 season as a whole – rest on the shoulders of the offensive line. And, boy, is that an uneasy feeling.

Ethan was born in Gainesville and has lived in the Starke, Florida, area his entire life. He played basketball for five years and knew he wanted to be a sportswriter when he was in middle school. He’s attended countless Gators athletic events since his early childhood, with baseball being his favorite sport to attend. He’s a proud 2019 graduate of the University of Florida and a 2017 graduate of Santa Fe College. He interned with the University Athletic Association’s communications department for 1 ½ years as a student and has spent the last two football seasons writing for InsideTheGators.com. He is a long-suffering fan of the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Tampa Bay Rays. You can follow him on Twitter @ehughes97.