Building the Ideal Gators Starting Offensive Line for 2020

Zach Goodall

In order to fully maximize Florida Gators head coach Dan Mullen's "smashmouth-spread" style of offense, powered by a dominant run game, improvement is necessary across the offensive line.

The Gators entered the 2019 season with four new starters across the offensive front, replacing four NFL-caliber talents. Right tackle Jawaan Taylor was selected in the second round of the 2019 NFL Draft by the Jacksonville Jaguars, while right guard Fred Johnson, left tackle Martez Ivey, and left guard Tyler Jordan all went undrafted but at minimum received an NFL minicamp invitation. 

Johnson has since emerged with the Cincinnati Bengals, starting in one game and playing in six as the team's right tackle. Ivey spent the preseason with the New England Patriots before playing in the short-lived XFL, and Jordan tried out for the Atlanta Falcons.

In 2019, it was clear that a lack of experience and run blocking prowess was Florida's offensive downfall, preventing the team from producing a dynamic run game as they had the year before. The week one starting line, from left to right, of Stone Forsythe, Brett Heggie, Nick Buchanan, Christopher Bleich, and Jean Delance, didn't consistently last throughout the year.

Rather, backups Richard Gouraige and Ethan White entered the line up at times, due to poor performance across the starting line, Bleich transferring to Syracuse, and injuries. Both offered enough promise to push for starting roles, as Gouraige went on to start five games and White stepping up as the team's sixth offensive lineman.

The Gators also signed four offensive linemen in the class of 2020 as well, reinforcing the idea that improvement, and depth, is greatly needed.

So, of this group of offensive linemen that the Gators will carry into the 2020 season - or whenever football kicks off amidst the novel coronavirus pandemic - what would the ideal starting unit look like? 

It should be noted that this exercise is based on performance in 2019 for returning players, and high school film observations for incoming prospects.

Left tackle: Richard Gouraige, 6-4, 298 lbs.

Though he only started five contests, Gouraige saw action in 12 games and played 562 of 909 possible snaps. Gouraige allowed a quarterback pressure on only 3.72% of his pass-blocking snaps, per Pro Football Focus, which ranks better than Delance, Forsythe, Heggie, and Bleich on the season in no particular order.

PFF isn't fond of Gouraige as a run blocker, grading him out at a 50.2 on their 0-100 scale. Still, that grade is tied with Delance and within 7.3 points of Heggie and Buchanan, and Gouraige should continue to grow in that department as he's only a rising sophomore. Meanwhile, Delance allowed a pressure on 6.02% of his pass-blocking snaps.

Florida can also afford to sacrifice run-blocking prowess at left tackle in return for Gouraige's pass protecting ability and athleticism. Though Gouraige started at guard, he saw 109 snaps at left tackle on the season, and Florida should look to build upon his experience outside and intangibles to protect the quarterback's blindside.

Left guard: Joshua Braun, 6-6, 356 lbs.

While one of Florida's primary issues across the offensive line in 2019 was a lack of experience, Joshua Braun is an intriguing case study as an incoming freshman.

Dan Mullen utilizes inside zone as his base run call. That concept requires power from the interior offensive line at the line of scrimmage to control their gaps, and both the eye discipline and movement skills to read and take on second-level defenders, opening up inside gaps for the running back to cut and go. Combo blocks from both guard spots are crucial.

Basically, the interior offensive line is key to inside zone being successful. Braun comes from a run-heavy offense, which has allowed him to polish his inside zone techniques at numerous positions. Braun has previously played both tackle and both guard spots, and pairs his size with nimble athleticism - he qualified for Class 2A state quarterfinals in the individual doubles tennis section, according to UF.

Braun doesn't provide the college experience of other suitors for the left guard spot, but he provides the upside, size, and power to compete early. Not to mention, Braun enrolled early and practiced with the team prior to the Orange Bowl.

Center: Brett Heggie, 6-4, 330 lbs.

Last season, Florida's only returning starter on the offensive line was at center in Nick Buchanan. As the line looks to replace its lead communicator, moving Heggie from guard to center would make a lot of sense. 

Heggie had an up-and-down redshirt junior season, allowing pressure on 4.29% of pass-blocking snaps and earning a 57.3 run-blocking grade across 12 starts at guard. In total, Heggie has played in 29 career games, starting 19. 

He may not offer much upside, but Heggie's experience is important and he's a capable starter when he's healthy. Also, Heggie enrolled at Florida as a center and has spent time at the position, which furthers his case.

Right guard: Ethan White, 6-5, 337 lbs.

While White only started one game and took the field for 197 snaps, he looked the part of a starting-caliber offensive lineman and took drastic steps to get into football shape after weighing nearly 400 lbs. coming out of high school - as one of Florida's lowest-ranked signings by consensus rankings.

After Bleich's departure from the program, offensive line coach John Hevesy praised White's work ethic and stated that he was the "next man up" as Florida's sixth offensive lineman. With Buchanan now graduated, logic would nod to White being a member of the starting five, and right guard is where he has spent his time so far.

On 119 pass-blocking snaps, White allowed only three QB pressures - 2.52% of the time, better than any other starting lineman on the year. And his run blocking was solid in his lone start against Vanderbilt as well. As a run blocker on the year, White earned a 60.5 grade from PFF.

The upside with White, like Gouraige and Braun, is notable.

Right tackle: Stone Forsythe, 6-7, 329 lbs,

Forsythe and Heggie were dependable enough for Florida last year to hold onto full-time starting roles. Although Forsythe got off to a rough start as a starter, he improved during the year and was not far off from Gouraige from a pass protection perspective.

Across his 13 starts, Forsythe allowed a pressure on 3.75% of his pass-blocking snaps and graded out as the unit's top run blocker at 69.2, per PFF. In his first six starts, Forsythe allowed 13 quarterback pressures. Compare that to Forsythe's final seven starts, where he allowed seven pressures - averaging one allowed per game.

When Gouraige kicked outside to left tackle in 2019, Forsythe remained in the lineup but flipped to the right tackle position. Once again, this is a transition that'd simply make sense based on experience.

Conclusion

In 2019, the Gators' pass protecting unit did a good enough job to give quarterback Kyle Trask ample time to throw, and in lieu of a run game, Mullen took advantage and flipped Florida's script to a pass-heavy offense.

While Trask performed admirably and Florida has plenty of potential in its pass-catching corps, a Dan Mullen football team runs the football. The interior offensive line needs to take major steps forward in order for the Gators to get back to rushing the ball successfully as they did in 2018, where the team averaged 213.5 yards per game on the ground.

It'd be a youth movement at guard, but Braun and White are highly regarded by the team and will push for starting positions whenever football picks back up. Their size, strength, and processing abilities make them ideal fits for both spots, while Gouraige, Heggie, and Forsythe fill out the rest of the unit nicely.

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