GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) – Florida coach Jim McElwain didn’t really want to look back.
Not to that point in time. Not to that situation. Not to that “dark place.”
He went there anyway this week, recalling how he felt last spring when the 11th-ranked Gators were so short-handed along the offensive line that walk-ons were working as starters and freshmen not even on campus yet were penciled in as backups.
“You really want to make me miserable?” McElwain said. “I know this: That dark place you were talking about, it was really dark.”
Seven months later, Florida’s offensive line is the brightest spot for the Southeastern Conference’s most surprising team. The Gators (5-0, 3-0 SEC), who play at Missouri (4-1, 1-1) on Saturday night, have allowed just 10 sacks and been nearly as good opening up holes for the ground game.
It’s not the kind of line that’s going to take home any postseason awards, but the unit has been considerably better than anyone, even McElwain, could have imagined when he started installing plays in March.
“We’re still nowhere where we’re going to be,” McElwain said. “I would say the biggest thing I see there is they’re starting to understand the value of communication.”
Florida’s line was the team’s biggest area of concern coming into the season. The Gators graduated three starters – center Max Garcia, guard Trenton Brown and offensive tackle Chaz Green – and had two more leave school early. Left tackle D.J. Humphries and backup guard Tyler Moore decided not to stick around for McElwain’s first season.
Causing even more depth issues, fifth-year senior Trip Thurman missed all of spring practice with a chronic shoulder injury and experienced guard Rod Johnson was forced to end his career in April because of a spine problem.
Johnson was diagnosed with congenital cervical stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal canal that prevents enough fluid to gather around the spinal cord. The fluid protects the spinal cord from injury.
McElwain spent much of the summer trying to piece together the line. He put three sophomores, including a former defensive lineman, into the starting lineup. He convinced Fordham graduate Mason Halter to transfer to Florida. Thurman got healthy enough to give it another go. Freshmen Martez Ivey and Fred Johnson showed up in July ready to contribute.
And they had veteran offensive line coach Mike Summers, the lone holdover from Will Muschamp’s staff, getting them ready.
Nonetheless, most pundits predicted the worst. They picked the Gators to finish well back in the Eastern Division race, partly because of the line’s problems.
Players, meanwhile, never doubted the progress they were seeing in practice against a stout defense.
“I’m honestly not surprised at all,” Halter said. “Coming in here, I knew the quality of guys we had and just the personalities we had. We meshed really well together and we’re still growing as an offensive line, obviously. But I’m really proud of how we’ve been playing and it’s going to get better each week.”
One of the toughest tests is on tap.
Mizzou leads the conference in total defense and ranks second nationally with 48 tackles for loss. Freshman defensive end Walter Brady leads the way with 7 ½ tackles for loss, including five sacks. On the opposite side, sophomore Charles Harris had 9 ½ tackles for loss, including three sacks.
The Gators, though, appear up for the challenge.
They dominated matchups in the trenches against Kentucky, Tennessee and then-No. 3 Mississippi. Handling the Rebels was the most impressive considering they mostly shut down All-American defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche.
“The comfort level is there,” tight end Jake McGee said. “They’re young, but there are some good offensive linemen in this program. It’s something that as they see more and more blitzes, stunts and that kind of stuff, they’ll only continue to improve. Coach Summers has done a great job just getting all the pieces, and they’re still moving some things around, but that’s a hard-working group that wants to be great.”
If the line keeps this up, McElwain might even forget about that “dark place.”
“We’re growing up,” McElwain said. “We’re getting a little bit better and we’re learning to compete.”