Florida officially opened training camp Thursday, and when the Gators’ offense took the field it trotted out a starting offensive line that had never formally practiced together.
Get used to it, UF fans.
Florida’s offensive line — as inexperienced as any unit in the nation — is essentially starting from scratch, and the group will juggle a number of combinations throughout camp before it settles on a starting lineup for its opener Sept. 5 against New Mexico State.
“The key is to put the five best out there, whoever those five best are who give you best opportunity to win the game,” first-year coach Jim McElwain said. “That’s what we’ll do.”
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The Gators return just 10 career starts — all from versatile but oft-injured senior Trip Thurman. They lost four players to the NFL, another to a devastating career-ending injury, and had just six scholarship linemen available during spring practice.
The unit maintained a modicum of continuity when McElwain retained position coach Mike Summers — the lone holdover from former coach Will Muschamp’s staff.
Still, Florida’s expectations are low in 2015, mostly because prognosticators believe the offensive line will be the team’s sore thumb.
“We don’t talk about it — we know. We hear it,” said senior transfer Mason Halter, a two-time Division I-AA All-American left tackle at Fordham.
“We’re here to prove that wrong, definitely. We’ve been working very hard in summer and we’re going to work very hard in camp. We’re going to try to be the best offensive line we can be, and hopefully that’s the best in the whole country, SEC anywhere else.”
UF won’t be close to the “best” unit in the conference, but the Gators do possess some promising pieces to at least build a formidable group.
McElwain worked tirelessly this offseason bolstering the line’s numbers, adding two immediate transfers (highlighted by Halter) and six freshmen, including five-star offensive tackle Martez Ivey. Thurman can play multiple positions, and youngsters Cam Dillard, likely the team’s starting center, Antonio Riles and mammoth sophomore tackle David Sharpe (6-6, 355) are embracing the challenge of increased roles.
“We’re jelling as one unit,” Dillard said.
“We’re coming together. Got a good bunch of guys, good bunch of friends, and that helps a lot, especially on the offensive line when we’ve got to get five guys on one page. Camp is going to be big for us to continue to get to that.”
Ideally, the Gators will settle on an eight-man rotation, one that could include as many as three or four true freshman. The team practiced in a split-squad session just for the first day of camp, but McElwain was impressed with the newbies’ size and communication efforts.
“A lot of guys looked the part,” he said. “It was comforting to see us break the huddle. We’ve got some big guys up there.”
Florida’s young group won’t develop cohesiveness right away, but it’s determined not to be the reason UF’s offense could struggle again this fall.
“There’s always going to be pressure when you lose four guys to the draft and have a new quarterback,” Thurman said. “There’s definitely a lot of pressure, but we’re in great hands with coach Summers as our guy leading us and having us going into the right direction.
“We’re going to do the best we can.”