Photo credit: University of Florida athletic association
As we rewind what was the Florida Gators 2020 season, taking a look at the offensive line can either leave you feeling optimistic, or concerned.
The offensive line was one of Florida's biggest question marks entering the year. Two-year starting center Nick Buchanan had moved on from the program at the end of the 2019 season while the unit as a whole struggled significantly with run blocking. Quarterback Kyle Trask's pass protection was solid, but not perfect, in his first season as a starter, as UF gave up 25 sacks in 13 games.
Florida looked to replace Buchanan with true sophomore Ethan White, who showed promise during his freshman season at guard despite being Florida's lowest-ranked recruit in the 2019 class by consensus rankings. However, a knee injury in fall camp cost White that role and about half of his season before returning as a depth piece.
The day one starting offensive line consisted of left tackle Stone Forsythe, left guard Richard Gouraige, center Brett Heggie, right guard Stewart Reese, and right tackle Jean Delance. Reese graduate-transferred to Florida during the offseason after previous experience with head coach Dan Mullen and the UF staff at Mississippi State. The remaining four either started or played significantly for UF in 2019.
In 12 games this past season, Florida gave up 20 sacks while passing on 0.6% more plays than it had in 2019, improving as a unit and helping pave the way to Trask's Heisman finalist campaign. The running game didn't improve much as UF seemingly never strategically utilized it, and as a whole, production improved from 2019 to 2020 by just 0.1 yards per rushing attempt, from 4.2 to 4.3.
Forsythe and Heggie emerged as NFL Draft prospects this season after solid but replaceable 2019 showings. Heggie, a long-tenured Gator, was arguably an upgrade at center over Buchanan while Forsythe was typically a wall against edge rushers. The feat of developing average starters into draft picks, which offensive line coach John Hevesy also accomplished with Jawaan Taylor in 2018, should provide some optimism with the development of the line as a whole moving forward.
However, while the left side of the line performed well, from Heggie in the middle to Forsythe on the outside with Gouraige sandwiched in between, the right side left something to be desired. Delance, in his second year as a starter, displayed minimal improvement and was benched at times for his play, only to return to the lineup eventually. Reese didn't have the best season either, but that could be from a mix of learning a new environment and Delance's issues next to him.
As Delance was in and out of the lineup, and Reese dealt with injury, a mix of White, freshman Joshua Braun, and redshirt freshman Michael Tarquin earned meaningful snaps. Braun, in particular, looked strong across his 147 offensive snaps, including a zero-pressure-allowed showing on 45 snaps against Georgia.
Delance and Reese have a decision to make as to if they will return in 2021 with extended eligibility, while Gouraige and White aspire to be key starters moving forward on Florida's line. Braun is also likely to be in the mix to start in 2021.
The future of Florida's interior offensive line looks bright with White, Braun, and Gouraige (although he could move to tackle after Forsythe's departure). Development at both tackle spots, internally or via the transfer portal, is a must this offseason, though.