Walker’s transfer brings future depth issues on lines into sharper focus

Florida lost Issiah Walker to the transfer portal earlier this month, and he went closer to home by choosing Miami. It’s the second time in as many years that the Gators have lost an early enrollee after spring who wanted to go closer to home.

Those who followed the Chris Steele story a year ago will know there was a lot to that story, and Gainesville is much farther from California than South Florida. Walker spent more than a year committed to South Carolina, which is even more distant from Miami. I’m not sure yet we can say it’s a real pattern instead of bad luck, but it’ll be something to watch.

One certain upshot is that Walker’s departure puts a hole in UF’s offensive tackle pipeline.

UF has a pair of senior returning starters at OT this year in Stone Forsythe and Jean Delance. I think a lot of people would’ve liked to see younger players challenge for one or both spots after last season’s performance if there had been a spring practice session. With the way things turned out, I think it’s likely they’ll be your opening day starters barring some new development along the line.

Whether or not a grad transfer or Richard Gouraige beats one or both of them out, the future path doesn’t change. Some grad transfers come in with more than one year of eligibility—see Adam Shuler on the defensive line for a recent example—but it’s uncommon. After the 2020 season, supposing there is one, the situation at tackle looks precarious.

Gouraige will be the most veteran player as a redshirt junior. Michael Tarquin will be a redshirt sophomore. That’ll be it for players with more than two years in the program.

Behind them will be 2020 signees Joshua Braun and Gerald Mincey, plus anyone who signs in the 2021 class. Braun was considered the most ready to play among the three OT signees from ’20, so if that’s true, he’d be in line to see backup duty before Walker would’ve been. Even so, Walker is more likely to be ready sooner than is Mincey.

The 2021 class doesn’t yet have any tackle commits who scream “immediate contributor as a true freshman”. All three in the class committed to Florida before the recruiting services had rankings for them, and that includes one who pulled the trigger on it this week. That doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t be SEC-caliber players until a few years in, but it does mean they don’t have the obvious traits that scouts look for that get players ratings early.

Provided nothing sets back Braun, Florida will have a hard time identifying a fourth offensive tackle that it’s comfortable with for the 2021 season. It’s not a position that usually rotates, so the lack of depth may be fine for a season if Gouraige, Tarquin, and Braun are the only trustworthy players there. UF might yet find a college-ready tackle in the ’21 class, and it might bring in a transfer who can play right away.

Regardless, it’s not great for Florida to once again be in a position where it has depth questions on the offensive line. You can trace how it happened fairly easily.

Gouraige and Noah Banks were the two real tackle prospects signed in 2018. Banks was a JUCO transfer with two years of eligibility, so he was never going to be around in 2021. The 2019 class brought Tarquin and Wardrick Wilson, except the latter is a native Bahamian who never enrolled because of federal visa issues. Braun, Walker, and Mincey are from 2020, but Walker has now left. Each year has seen some reason, from the pedestrian (Banks) to the highly unusual (Wilson), why an offensive tackle signee would not be around for Dan Mullen’s fourth season.

Offensive tackle is not the only position with pipeline issues. Defensive line is there too.

The Gators have three seniors in Kyree Campbell, Marlon Dunlap, and Tedarrell Slaton. They have two juniors in Zach Carter and Elijah Conliffe. It should’ve been four seniors, but Conliffe missed 2019 to injury. Carter has an NFL-ready physique, so he’s a threat to turn pro after this year if he has a great season.

Behind them are just two players who’ve been in the program at all: redshirt sophomore Andrew Chatfield and redshirt freshman Jaelin Humphries. Chatfield has played sparingly, and Humphries missed a lot of time last year to injury. Georgia transfer Brenton Cox is a more natural at Buck, but like Buck transfer Jonathan Greenard did last year, he may help out at defensive end some. Given his 5-star pedigree, he may be even more of a draft risk than Carter is.

We can trace this depth situation easily as well. In 2018, UF signed Chatfield and Malik Langham. Chatfield actually came in as a Buck linebacker and was still listed as such last year, and Langham transferred to Vanderbilt in summer 2019. Humphries was the only defensive line signee in 2019, though perhaps one or two of Buck signees could move to defensive end at some point if they bulk up enough.

In 2020 UF loaded up on linemen with Gervon Dexter, Johnnie Brown, Lamar Goods, Princely Umanmielen, and Jalen Lee coming in on the DL, but all are as of yet unproven and without a 2020 offseason of real training under Nick Savage. It’s unclear how many will play this season, especially on the inside where four upperclassmen currently reside.

Roster balance can be tricky, and it’s made tougher by circumstances and timing. T.J. Moore came in as a 4-star offensive tackle signee; he’s now a redshirt junior career backup at guard. Signing only Chatfield and Langham in 2018 made sense when that year’s team had two seniors, five juniors, four sophomores, and a redshirt freshman on the line.

Circumstances and timing always happen, though. Some players don’t pan out, and others transfer. Big classes at one position happen to deal with shortages, and they work their way through and cause new shortages when they rotate out.

Experienced depth will be a problem at offensive tackle and defensive line in 2021. Walker leaving made the former worse, but the problem was going to be there. The optimistic case at OT for ’21 relies on projecting Tarquin and Braun, and you’ve taken as many college snaps while games were in doubt as they have.

Part of the case for the current staff is that it’s good at evaluation and development. They’ll need to prove it along the trenches in the next two years. If they can’t, Mullen will need to keep working his hole-plugging magic with the transfer portal to ensure he has SEC-quality lines in 2021.

David Wunderlich
David Wunderlich is a born-and-raised Gator and a proud Florida alum. He has been writing about Florida and SEC football since 2006. He currently lives in Naples Italy, at least until the Navy stations his wife elsewhere. You can follow him on Twitter @Year2