I’ve been writing about college football for about a dozen years now, and I’ve read sportswriting for as long as I could read. I’ve got the lingo and cliches down by now.
“Unproven” is a fairly straightforward word that nonetheless gets used as a euphemism for “bad”. When a team has a new quarterback, for instance, someone will project that team as being worse for having lost the prior starter by saying it’s “unproven at quarterback”.
The thing is, unproven doesn’t mean bad. It means that the player or players in question haven’t done it before.
Everyone was unproven at some point. Tim Tebow was unproven as a passer going into 2007. So was Cam Newton going into 2010, or Johnny Manziel in any capacity heading into 2012.
What unproven really means is that there’s a wide range of possibilities. Once you’ve seen a player perform, you get an idea of what their strengths and weaknesses are. The edges of the range start moving towards a rough idea of where his average performance is going to be. After one game in 2007, we knew Tebow wasn’t going to be awful as a passer. The low end of his potential range came way up, and depending on where your expectations were, the high end might’ve even moved higher.
Heading into 2019, Florida’s offensive line deservedly gets the “unproven” tag. Only one starter returns, Nick Buchanan at center.
It seems likely that Brett Heggie and Stone Forsythe will also have starting roles since they actually played some meaningful snaps here and there last year. Heggie was also a starter in 2017 and probably would’ve worked his way into the main lineup in 2018 had he been able to stay healthy. Of course, even that promising note about Heggie and his past performance adds uncertainty, as he hasn’t been able to stay healthy. He’s not that far north on the injury luck scale than Matt Patchan was.
Beyond those three, Chris Bleich appears to be next in line. According to UF’s participation report, he played the maximum four games while still getting to redshirt last fall. No other redshirt freshman expected to be in the mix saw that much action; Richard Gouraige and Griffin McDowell each only played two games, both against the FCS opponents.
For what its worth, a couple of veterans who already took redshirts didn’t see more game action than Bleich did. Texas transfer Jean Delance also played in four games, while TJ Moore only played against the FCS teams. Listed at 6-6 and 321 pounds, Bleich has the size that John Hevesy likes, and he’s seen the field as much as any potential competitors for a guard spot other than Heggie.
If Heggie can stay on the field, I might put him at the highest likelihood of being in the starting five. Buchanan was fine a lot of the time but certainly wasn’t exceptional at center. Heggie has cross-trained at center some in practice, so if two other quality guards emerge, he could wind up in the middle.
Dan Mullen also signed McDowell as his center of the future in his transitional class. However, Buchanan’s prospects are buoyed by the fact that McDowell is reportedly going to miss spring practice due to a scooter accident. Heggie fell behind last year after missing significant practice time to injury and could never make it up; the same fate may befall McDowell.
Noah Banks, who will likely be the line’s Swiss army knife this year, might miss some of the session as well thanks to a vaguely-defined medical issue. GC’s Andrew Spivey mentioned in the Bullgator Den that he heard Banks’s problem was something minor, but no one seems to have any concrete information on his status. He’ll be in the running to be one of the top five-to-seven linemen, as he saw action in 12 games last year. But, if he misses any time, that’ll put him behind too.
In any event, four of the five spots are likely to go to Forsythe at left tackle, Buchanan at center, and Heggie and Bleich at the guards. Right tackle is still a complete mystery. You’d like to see Gouraige, one of the jewels of the 2018 recruiting class, take the spot after redshirting and developing a year. But again, Delance played in double the games he did last year. At the end of the Peach Bowl with Emory Jones in to run out the clock, it was Delance and not Gouraige holding down the right tackle position. There are several true freshman early enrollees at offensive tackle as well.
I’d like to think a second year working out with Nick Savage and learning from Hevesy will make a difference given how shaky the backup line was in 2018, and it probably will. I also know that they’re not literal miracle workers. Hevesy is known as an elite teacher of line play — and he has to be, since his gruff personality keeps him from being an elite recruiter — but even he can only do so much.
I watched a lot of 2017 Mississippi State last offseason to get ready for Mullen’s first year. Hevesy was the Bulldogs’ line coach the entire time Mullen was there. In that season, redshirt freshman Stewart Reese (older brother of the younger David Reese on UF’s roster) started every game at right tackle. I won’t say he was a disaster, but when there were significant breakdowns, right tackle was far more often than not part of the problem. There are no guarantees even with Hevesy coaching guys up.
And, of course, with line play it’s all about how well they can work together as a unit. Especially early on, last year’s Florida line struggled with defensive line stunts and blitzes that required guys to hand a defender off to the guy next to them. Getting the starting five set as early as possible will be important, but every spot except probably left tackle with Forsythe is negotiable since Heggie both can play at several spots and is liable to go down to injury at any time.
So, the Florida line is about as unproven as it gets heading into spring practice. It also has all of spring and fall camp to work on gelling as a unit. If anyone can whip them into decent shape, Hevesy can. There are some red flags, and the range of potential quality is very wide. But unproven doesn’t mean bad, and maybe the line will turn out just fine. We’ll all have to watch it together.