GAINESVILLE, Fla. – In Jim McElwain’s first two seasons, the offensive line has been a problem area, with the Gators checking in near the bottom of the SEC in stats like sacks allowed (No. 14 in 2015, No. 10 in 2016) and rushing plays of 10-plus yards (No. 13 in 2015, No. 14 in 2016).

Despite those stats, McElwain made a bold claim on media day.

“I can finally say the strength of our team is our offensive line,” McElwain said. “I feel pretty good about it.”

For center T.J. McCoy, McElwain’s words were taken as a challenge.

“I took it as a challenge and we all did,” said McCoy, whose father, Tony, played defensive tackle for the Gators before going to the NFL. “We’ve just been working hard this whole summer just to get tighter and closer.”

Getting closer has involved spending more time together on and off the field.

“We’ve been doing a lot of things after workouts, working on calls, working on footwork, just working overall just to be closer as a unit,” McCoy said. “We did a lot of team bonding activities, and I took it as a challenge and we’re ready for the challenge and our plan is this camp is to just grow.”

"I can finally say the strength of our team is our offensive line. I feel pretty good about it." -- Jim McElwain

As a redshirt freshman last season, injuries forced McCoy, the third-string center, into action in Week 10 against South Carolina. McElwain saw a change in the line with McCoy on the field.

“I think T.J. McCoy was actually kind of a lightning rod a little bit for us from a transformation piece,” McElwain said. “The energy, the care, the want, obviously being a legacy and playing in The Swamp, for him, that’s real. You hear me talk a little bit about how to affect the people around you in a positive way. He’s definitely one of those guys.”

In January, McElwain added another lightning rod to the offensive line room, assistant coach Brad Davis. After losing an assistant who’s been coaching since 1980 (Mike Summers), McElwain filled the vacancy with someone who was born in 1980 (Davis).

The decision surprised many, as Davis, previously at North Texas, was far from a high-profile name, but McElwain likes the energy and attitude brought by the Oklahoma alum who has worked his way up the coaching ladder.

“Yeah, I’ve got to tell you, I’m really excited about Brad, how he goes about his business, and obviously really invests himself in these guys’ lives,” McElwain said. “The energy (he brings) is fantastic. Obviously I’m putting the heat on him, too, and yet he’s ready to take it.

“I love his pedigree. I like the fact that he kind of had to earn his stripes at these powers like Portland State – a household college football name, right? – and the fact that he was an under-recruited guy that ended up starting at a great program and kind of a little bit of a chip. I just love that.”

Davis isn’t the only Gator with a little bit of a chip.

“Most people were bashing (the offensive line) for the last two years since I’ve been here,” left tackle Martez Ivey said. “Now they think we’re the strong point of the offense and we’re supposed to carry the load.”

McElwain knows the linemen are tired of being one of the most criticized position groups on the team.

“I think they probably got together and said, ‘Look, we can do this,’ and there’s no reason to take a backseat to anybody,” McElwain said.

The offensive line is one of Florida’s more cohesive, experienced position groups. The only spot to fill this season comes from the departure of left tackle David Sharpe, now in the NFL. Ivey, who will slide over to left tackle after playing the last two seasons at left guard, knows it’s time to play like an experienced, veteran unit.

“We’ve got no excuses now,” Ivey said. “We’ve all played. We’ve all got experience. We’re not young anymore.”