- Edward Aschoff, ESPN Staff Writer
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As we continue our look at all 14 SEC teams' most important positions, it's time to look at what new Florida coach Jim McElwain will have to keep a close eye on during fall camp and throughout the season.
Everyone wants to talk about the quarterback position at Florida, but if the big boys up front can't perform, it won't matter who is throwing the ball in Gainesville this fall.
Most important position: Offensive line
Why: The Gators never had consistent offensive line play during coach Will Muschamp's four years at Florida. No matter how many jabs Florida fans and media folk alike took at the Gators' quarterback/receiver play over the past few years, the offensive line played just as big a part in the offensive decline at times by the Gators.
Now, Florida, which will operate under yet another new offensive scheme, is working with an offensive line that was stitched together with tape and walk-ons this spring after losing 47 combined starts from five players on an offensive line that surrendered just 17 sacks last season. After losing Roderick Johnson, arguably Florida's most talented offensive lineman, to a career-ending injury, Florida left spring with just six healthy scholarship linemen. With senior Trip Thurman out with a nagging shoulder injury, Johnson was the only lineman with a start on his resume to begin the spring.
But there is a little bit of hope on the way. Thurman, who started 10 games last season, has returned to lifting weights and has been cleared to play this fall. Six true freshmen, including No. 1 offensive line prospect Martez Ivey, and two transfers -- T.J. McCoy (NC State) and Mason Halter (Fordham) -- should immediately compete for playing time during fall camp -- ready or not -- giving the Gators 15 scholarship offensive linemen. Still 14 will lack SEC starting experience.
That means McElwain will have to find his team's offensive identity by operating around a relatively green offensive line ... in the treacherous trenches of the SEC.
"It's all on the offensive line," wide receiver Brandon Powell said. "That's pretty much it. If those young boys get right, it all depends on them."
Halter and McCoy add solid depth, and the Gators could have a solid foundation for the future. You have to wonder how physically ready Halter will be for SEC play, but he was an FCS All-American last year at left tackle and has 33 career starts.
Ivey is a special talent, and he'll have to start immediately at one of the tackle spots. His development will go a long way to shaping this line. Sophomore David Sharpe, Florida's top lineman this spring, should start opposite him, likely at left tackle to begin the season. Former defensive lineman Antonio Riles and Travaris Dorsey both impressed at guard this spring, so the coaches will expect even more development in camp.
The Gators finally have numbers up front, but they lack SEC experience. If this offense is going to make strides in McElwain's first year, the offensive line has to play well, and it has to protect whichever quarterback takes over.