Gators’ offensive line no longer a liability

When reports surfaced during training camp that the Gators’ offensive line was still struggling to generate a consistent push in the running game, a sizable segment of the fan base became irate toward offensive line coach John Hevesy.

Throughout the offseason, Dan Mullen said that the offense was going to become more reliant on the ground game following the departures of quarterback Kyle Trask, receiver Kadarius Toney and tight end Kyle Pitts. So, reading that the most crucial position on the offense was still a weakness caused a feeling of uneasiness and panic to settle in among some people.

Those days feel like a distant memory now.

The narrative has completely changed after the first three games, as the offensive line’s high level of play has been a huge – and much welcomed – surprise.

The Gators rank second in the country in rushing at 335.7 yards per game, which is the highest average by a UF team through three games in 40 years. They’ve only given up two sacks, which ties for the second-fewest in the SEC.

Because the Gators’ first two opponents, Florida Atlantic and South Florida, aren’t exactly defensive juggernauts, there was still some uncertainty as to how good the offensive line really is heading into last week.

There’s no reason to doubt anymore. Not after they bullied one of the biggest and most talented defensive fronts in the country against Alabama en route to averaging six yards per carry.

Instead of getting worn down in the second half as has been the case with many of the Tide’s opponents in recent years, they wore down the Alabama defense. They ran for 156 yards and averaged 7.1 yards per carry in the second half.

UF’s offensive line is officially legit.

“I think we’ve done some good things up front,” Mullen said. “I think they’re playing pretty well for us, especially in the run game, play-action pass. We’re doing some good things, getting better. That was a pretty good defensive front we played there, but I thought we were able to move the ball pretty consistently through the course of the game and overall played pretty well.”

So, how did the offensive line go from being a perceived weakness to one of the top units on the team in a matter of weeks?

There are several factors that explain it.

First, knowing that the running game was going to be the offense’s bread and butter this season lit a fire under them. Over the past couple of years, if the running game failed, it wasn’t that big of a deal. They could still throw for 400 yards and win the game. This year, they know that if they don’t run the ball effectively that they will lose the game, and it will largely be their fault.

They don’t just want to run the ball anymore; they need to be able to run it.

“As a unit, we have a different mentality,” center Kingsley Eguakun said. “We really don’t fear anybody. I think as a unit, we’ve all been talking about this since I first got here, like, this is what we want to do. We want to leave our legacy; we want to be great.

“Me personally, and I know my whole starting unit and even the guys behind us, we just want to go assert our dominance, assert our will on people and really show them ‘We’re going to run the ball, and you can’t stop us.’ That’s what we want to do.”

Good chemistry is also a key ingredient in every successful offensive line. Most of the time, an offensive lineman’s job isn’t as simple as just beating the guy directly lined up in front of him. They’ve got to pass defenders off to each other, perform double-teams and trust that the other four linemen are going to do their jobs.

There’s no denying that UF’s offensive line has that cohesion. Several players this week have spoken about how the linemen are joined at the hip all day every day. You’ll rarely see just one of them at a place at a given time.

“They are probably the most accountable players on the team,” quarterback Emory Jones said. “They’re always the first ones in the building, and they’re always together. They’re always the first ones in the building together doing everything and really getting the things they need done, handling their business, and they’ve been working their butt off since they all got here.”

Lastly, Mullen said that one of the biggest reasons for the offensive line’s improvement is their experience playing for Hevesy. All five starters are in at least their third seasons playing for him.

Mullen said that Hevesy is an intense coach who can sometimes rub guys the wrong way initially. Once they get older, though, they tend to buy-in more to the things that he’s telling them to do, and that’s showing up this year.

“I think he’s tough on the guys,” Mullen said. “He’s kind of like a wine and gets better with age sometimes. If you drink it too soon, it’s a little sour. So, maybe, the young guys come in and they’re like, ‘A little sour right now,’ and then they kind of appreciate it through the years and understand. He really cares about his players. He really cares about his guys, number one. And he has a high standard, and he really wants to see them do well and improve and play hard.

“I think guys early on kind of are like, ‘Boy, this guy’s just grinding on me, grinding me.’ And then as they get a little bit older, they realize ‘Hey, this guy really cares about me. He really cares about my improvement. He really cares about me becoming a great player, and he’s grinding on me for me to become my best and to hold me accountable to be my best.’ And so that’s why I think … [when] we get some older guys within the line, they perform at a high level because they understand that.”

Hevesy thinks that the hardest thing for young players to get used to is the lack of immediate playing time. While some coaches have a specific number of linemen that they rotate into games, Hevesy lets the players decide who plays and how much they play.

He has a very specific and straightforward developmental process that players must follow before he’ll put them in a game. Against Alabama, that meant that only seven linemen played.

“It’s a simple philosophy with the whole thing – watch the guys in front of you,” Hevesy said. “When you’re better than the guy in front of you or as good as the guy in front of you, you’ll play. You see in the game Saturday night, seven guys played. Seven guys have earned the right to play between Josh [Braun] and Michael [Tarquin] being six and seven going in the game. To me, there are seven guys that went in that game and played because they’ve earned the right to play. Once eight, nine and 10 earn it, they’ll get a chance to play.

“So, ultimately, [we] give them a plan to work it, and, once they see the success in doing it, they buy into it, and that’s sometimes hard in the beginning. It’s different than what they’ve done in high school where they have far higher expectations when they walk in here of, coming out [of] high school, that it’s going to be easy when they’ve had that success. Now they’ve got to learn to have that success by putting in the time, putting in the effort, putting in the work.”

Eguakun admitted that he wasn’t as mature as he needed to be when he enrolled at UF. But, as he looks back three years later, he’s glad that Hevesy has coached him hard.

“I needed it, what Coach Hevesy brought to the table,” he said. “My freshman year, I came in a little too cocky. I had a chip on my shoulder as well, but he definitely humbled me up. I think he prepares everybody to get in the game and be ready to play. I like playing for Coach Hevesy.

“When you come to college, you have to grow up fast. I came here when I was 17. I had to grow up fast. You can’t play in this league and be soft mentally, physically, in any aspect, really. So, playing for Hev is great because he’s specific in what he wants and so specific in what he teaches us. But you can’t be weak-minded and soft. You’ve got to be a man.”

Hevesy is pleased with how his group has played so far, but he knows that they still have plenty of mistakes to correct, starting with that failed two-point conversion attempt against Alabama.

“I think we played well, and I think we’ve still got a lot to work on and get better at,” Hevesy said. “But again, to this point, we’ve done enough to be successful two out of three games. We’ve got to be more successful. In my mind, I told my kids, ‘We’re 36 inches short of being successful last week.’ So, we’ve got to get back to the drawing board and get better at it this weekend.”

During the preseason, fans begged for the Gators to field just an average offensive line so that the running game could flourish this season.

Well, they’ve got much more than just an average offensive line. They’ve got one that will be considered one of the best in the country if they continue improving at their current pace.

Some members of Gator Nation owe Hevesy an apology.

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.