Florida Gators head coach Jim McElwain is a bit of a basketball fanatic. He mentioned the Gators men’s basketball team in his opening press conference, has been to several hoops games and ended an interview on Tuesday asking if there were any upsets in the NCAA conference tournaments while he was in practice.
A year ago McElwain barely had enough offensive linemen to run a pickup game of basketball on an off day, let alone have enough to run a full functional football program in spring camp. This year, even with starting left guard Martez Ivey out with an injury, Florida’s offensive line is as deep as it has been in years. The 2015 line was not only thin in numbers, but experience as well. They returned just 11 starts and all of those could be credited to one player — Trip Thurman.
This year Florida’s offensive line is deep. The unit returns 29 starts and has 44 games worth of experience, led the way by junior left tackle David Sharpe (12 starts) and redshirt junior Cam Dillard (11 starts). The experience is great, but just the sheer numbers that Florida has should show how the staff recognized a problem and worked to eradicate it.
“That was the thing that hurt us last year, not only at that position, really not having numbers. But obviously on the O-line, when you think about what ended up happening with just six of them or whatever,” McElwain said. “This year we’re sitting there at 16 bodies, which I think will help us when we get into our squad drills.”
McElwain was forced to MacGyver spring practices around the offensive line depth in 2015. As creative as the coaching staff could be it still couldn’t completely mask the deficiency. That left the offensive line stuck in the fast pass lane at Disney, even when they’d rather be relaxing on the teacup ride in air condition.
“It was tiring,” Sharpe recalled of long practices in brutal Florida heat with little rest. “We had a high-tempo practice, drill to drill to drill. We’re jogging every drill, going fast, getting a lot of reps. It was tiring.”
Low numbers along the offensive line isn’t a singular problem that only affects that position group. It has a trickle down effect to the entire offense and even to the defense. Iron sharpens iron and a tired offensive line isn’t going to give the defensive line the competitive reps they need to get better during camp. A tired offensive line isn’t going to give running backs lanes to get though and all of a sudden, a lack of depth at one position has made practice and camp as a whole less effective.
Sharpe, the oldest in the group along with Dillard is taking on a leadership role among the linemen and anchoring the unit.
I think David Sharpe this off-season I’ve seen a maturity growth. That’s something that’s gotta really happen and continue to happen,” McElwain said. “I think he realizes he has the opportunity to be a leader, be a guy who can be kinda the bell cow of that front, and we need him to do that, and I’ve seen him moving that in that area.”
The offensive line has taken a lot of heat the last couple of years for their play. With deeper numbers giving guys time to rest they’re being given an opportunity to really attack the reps that they get with a full head of steam.
Everything begins up front with the line and Sharpe and his crew are ready to make the move from liability to a strength in 2016.
“We can be much better than we were,” said Sharpe. “We’ve already got guys taking leadership roles, going harder, watching more film, knowing their assignments. We can become a lot better.”