Dan Mullen's inexperienced line will get tested quickly in Saturday night's opener against Miami
The Florida Gators offense showed a lot of growth in Dan Mullen's first season in Gainesville. One of the most significant areas of improvement was at the quarterback position.
Feleipe Franks struggled in 2017 as he finished with 1,438 yards, nine touchdowns, and eight interceptions. The 6-foot-6 quarterback struggled early in 2018 and was even benched in a home loss against Missouri. However, Franks would perform much better later in the campaign, leading the team to four straight wins to close things out, including a 41-15 rout of Michigan in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl.
"I think as the year went on, he understood what his abilities were and he decided to use all of his talents," Mullen said. "I think a light came on that (he's) 6-foot-6, 245 pounds and pretty athletic. Once he was able to block all things out, all of the noise, and really look at his skill set, what he does well, he was able to improve, and I think that helped build his confidence."
For Franks to exceed expectations, the Gators will need the offensive line to keep him upright. The potential problem is, Florida will have an inexperienced offensive line for the Aug. 24 season opener in Orlando, Florida, against the Miami Hurricanes.
The Gators lost four starters from last season, including Jawaan Taylor, a second-round pick in this year's NFL draft, and Martez Ivey. The four new faces up front for Florida will be redshirt freshman right guard Christopher Bleich, redshirt junior left guard Brett Heggie, redshirt junior right tackle Jean Delance, and redshirt junior left tackle Stone Forsythe.
Forsythe has fared well when he's been on the field. Last season, he played 109 snaps, allowing just one pressure in 52 pass-blocking snaps. Pro Football Focus gave Forsythe a grade of 78.5 for his pass blocking in 2018. In the opener, Forsythe will be matched up against Miami's talented edge rushers, including Jonathan Garvin, Trevon Hill, Gregory Rousseau, and Jahfari Harvey.
Redshirt senior center Nick Buchanan is the only returning starter along the offensive for the Gators. He will need to be the leader for this group. Florida's offensive line gave up 18 sacks last year, which ranked third in the SEC and 20th in the country. Buchanan knows the Gators will have their work cut out for them against the Hurricanes on Saturday night.
"Every game is a big game first off," Buchanan said. "The sense of urgency just comes, and we know that... we still have work that has to be done. So as long as there’s work to do it's going to be urgent."
Florida's offensive line and how this new-look group plays will not only directly impact Franks but also Florida's ground game.
Lamical Perine is back after leading the team with 826 rushing yards and seven touchdowns last season. Jordan Scarlett may no longer be around but there are backfield options on the roster behind Perine.
Sophomore Dameon Price showed a lot of ability in his limited touches and should get more opportunities to make plays with Scarlett gone. Fellow sophomore Malik Davis, the team's second-leading rusher in 2017, is back after playing in just three games last season due to injury. Two years ago, Davis ran for 526 yards and two touchdowns, averaging a healthy 6.7 yards per carry.
If the Gators want to reach their true potential on offense, Saturday night will serve as a great barometer for this unit, especially their inexperienced offensive line. Miami brings back six starters from a defense that finished first in the country against the pass and fourth in total yards allowed per game last season.
On Saturday night, if Florida can protect Franks, it should help open up some running lanes. But if the offensive line isn't able to hold up against the Hurricanes' solid front seven, then it could be a long night and season ahead for the Gators.
— Written by Antwan Staley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and has extensive experience covering Florida sports teams. Staley has written for Bleacher Report, the Miami Herald and the Palm Beach Post and is a reporter for Pro Player Insiders. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.