Florida’s young offense line is slowly jelling as training camp winds down, but Gators defensive end Bryan Cox Jr. couldn’t resist dishing out some veteran, brotherly love to the inexperienced unit.
“I’ve played against some top [Southeastern Conference] lines in my past,” he said. “I know what a real line is like. They’re getting close to that.”
Cox, a former star at Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas, delivered the backhanded compliment in all seriousness, but he quickly added that the mishmash group of newcomers and freshmen continue to exhibit methodical yet steady development as the season draws near.
“They’re coming along pretty well,” he said.
“They’ve definitely gotten better. They’re more solid with their protection. There are less holes, less assignment failures. … Time is the only answer for that because we have the talent. We just have to get the camaraderie because the O-line has to be tight.”
The Gators opened camp with 15 scholarship offensive linemen, including 10 who have never played a down in college. Redshirt senior Trip Thurman is the lone lineman on the roster with at least one Football Bowl Subdivision start (he has 10), so the opportunity for playing time is wide open.
Gators coach Jim McElwain is still searching for a reliable eight-man rotation, recently naming four players who have solidified definite roles in the fall: Thurman, Division I-AA transfer Mason Halter, sophomore David Sharpe and third-year guard Antonio Riles.
Five-star freshman Martez Ivey and redshirt sophomore center Cam Dilliard remain the most likely candidates for Florida’s fifth and final starting spot, but freshman tackle Fred Johnson and freshman center Tyler Jordan are pushing for playing time, too.
During camp, the Gators have cross-trained all their linemen, hoping to build a malleable unit without disrupting continuity, cohesiveness and communication.
Quarterback Will Grier believes the young group has displayed real progress, especially against Florida’s disruptive defensive line.
“The O-line has done a hell of a job,” Grier said.
“They’ve been moving guys around. A lot has been thrown at them. Our defense is throwing all kinds of fronts and different blitzes and stuff. Our defense is doing a really good job of the mental aspect of it. We just got to continue working with those guys. But I’ve been really impressed with that group. They’ve done a really good job.”
But time will soon tell whether they have matured enough.
Half of Florida’s regular-season schedule includes preseason ranked teams, so the Gators’ green group must grow up in a hurry — especially considering UF’s success this season largely hinges on the line’s health and continued development.
“We’ve been working our hardest on the D-line to get them ready for what they’re going to see,” Cox said.
“The young guys like Martez and the guys who are going to have to step up and play for us, we’ve been having them going extra hard — not necessarily extra hard — just give them our best every day so they know what it’s going to be like when they face an SEC opponent.”