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Offensive line key to a better Florida run game

JACKSONVILLE, FL - OCTOBER 29: Florida Gators offensive lineman Jawaan Taylor (65) blocks Georgia Bulldogs defensive tackle Trenton Thompson (78) during the NCAA football game between the Georgia Bulldogs and Florida Gators on October 29, 2016 at EverBank Field in Jacksonville, FL. (Photo by Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire)
(Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire)

The Florida Gators are going through a time-honored offseason tradition right now. The team has a new offensive line coach, so there are stories being written about how the new guy is different from the old guy.

The incoming Brad Davis is “effervescent” compared to the outgoing Mike Summers and his “rather stoic” personality. Returning starters Tyler Jordan and Martez Ivey are quoted as praising Davis’s energy, while center T.J. McCoy raves about the new coach being “relentless.”All differences between the former and current coach are being spun as positives.

Of course, it would be the same thing if the coaches’ roles were reversed. Had Summers replaced Davis, the story would be about how the new coach is “all business” and how he gets his point across without all the screaming and yelling. It has always been this way with football, and it always will be.

The most important changes Davis needs to bring about have less to do with personality and more to do with the rushing game. Florida’s offensive line hasn’t been good at paving the way for ball carriers, and it’s been that way for a while.

There aren’t any traditional offensive line stats, but some folks have tried to remedy that. One of the ones that the Football Outsiders crew adopted is called opportunity rate. It’s based on the idea that on run plays, the first five yards past the line of scrimmage are the offensive line’s responsibility. If the ball carrier gains at least five yards, then the line gave him an opportunity for success. So, opportunity rate is the percentage of rushing plays where the ball carrier gains at least five yards.

During the height of the Urban Meyer era, Florida was a great rushing team. Accordingly, its opportunity rate was in the mid-40 percents, which is an excellent place to be considering that about 40 percent is average. The Gators haven’t seen that kind of rate since.

The opportunity rate hovered around the 40 percent mark from Meyer’s last year into Will Muschamp’s first two seasons, but it’s been awful ever since. It cratered in Jim McElwain’s first year when the team was feeling the worst effects of Muschamp’s terrible O-line roster management. An FCS graduate transfer, a converted defensive lineman and true freshmen were prominent parts of the rotation that year. The rate recovered slightly in 2016 but not dramatically.

Another good stat is stuff rate, which captures how often an offense is stopped for no gain or a loss. I adapted it to cover stuff rate only on rushing plays, and I left out plays with fumbles to keep that confounding factor out. It actually was an area of encouragement last year.

The stuff rate on runs last year was the lowest it’s been since 2008. The line had been roughly between 16.5 and 18.5 percent in the interim, except for the horrendous rate offered up by Charlie Weis and his hand-picked offensive line coach Frank Verducci. Nearly one-in-four rushes in 2011 went no further than the line of scrimmage, which gives good reasoning why Gators fans were so frustrated with the offense that year.

I’m not entirely sure how much credit to give to the line for last year, though. Jordan Scarlett has proven adept at fighting his way through traffic to avoid losses, which is a big reason why he’s emerged as the top back. His personal stuff rate last year was just 12.4 percent, and his 178 attempts were about 44 percent of the total rushes counted here. He’s having something of an outsized effect on the team rate.

To be fair, Lamical Perine had a personal stuff rate of 14.4 percent, which does speak a bit better of the line. Mark Thompson was the back most often sent up the middle and into piles as a short-yardage back, though, and he had a personal 16.7 percent stuff rate. Some of that is on Thompson for getting stopped a bit too easily, but the line didn’t help him as much as it could have.

With Scarlett’s workload rising as Thompson’s was falling through 2016, Scarlett is poised to continue being the top back in 2017 with Perine the faster second option. That mix should help keep the stuff rate low.

The opportunity rate must rise noticeably, however, and the running back selection won’t do much there. In fact, Thompson and the now-transferred Jordan Cronkrite actually had the highest opportunity rates among the top four running backs a year ago. Thompson’s was up around 38 percent, while Scarlett and Perine were down below 35 percent.

In order for the run game to be accurately described as something better than “anemic,” the offensive line needs to carry more weight. Summers did a decent enough job with what he had, which was not much. Davis has a lot more to work with both in terms of experience and sheer numbers at the position.

Getting back up to 2008 or 2009-level opportunity rate is unrealistic for just one year’s improvement, but attaining a thoroughly average 40 percent rate is possible. With the passing game looking promising, a run game that can gain five or more yards on at least two of every five carries would be a huge boost to the offense. The run game can get there, but only if the offensive line gets a consistently better push up front first.

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