Injured Gators center Kingsley Eguakun pushes to return, solidify UF’s front

Already a question entering the season, Florida’s offensive line could be without its only returning starter, center Kingsley Eguakun, for Thursday’s opener at Utah.

Eguakun, who started 26 games the past two seasons, is day-to-day with an undisclosed injury, coach Billy Napier said.

“We do like the progress that he’s making,” Napier said Friday. “He’s gotten a little bit incrementally better as we go here. Certainly he’s a very veteran player, too. That’s part of the equation.”

Eguakun is expected to be a critical part of the Gators’ offensive success.

Eguakun’s value was evident during the April 13 spring game. While he sat out with injury, UF’s combination of centers, including redshirt sophomore back-up Jake Slaughter and first-year freshman Roderick Kearney, had several bad snaps.

While Eguakun pushes to return to the field, UF prepares to face No. 14 Utah’s talented defensive front, led by All-Pac-12 defensive tackle Junior Tafuna, in a raucous atmosphere. Communication will be critical at Rice-Eccles Stadium, where the Utes have won 14 straight dating to a 2020 loss to USC.

“Their fans do a really good job of making a hostile environment,” said receiver Ricky Pearsall, who played at Utah while with Arizona State. “They’re loud.”

Eguakun is well-familiar with the potential pitfalls of facing a physical opponent on its home turf. During a 20-13 loss in 2021 at Kentucky, the Gators committed 8 false-start penalties, a learning lesson for a first-year starting center he can bring to Thursday night’s nationally televised contest.

The 6-foot-3, 300-pound Jacksonville native also can get a retooled offensive line on the same page. The unit will look to pave the way for a run game capable of being one of the nation’s best and protect Wisconsin transfer quarterback Graham Mertz.

In 2022, UF was seventh nationally with an average of 5.51 yards per carry, 24th with an average of 200.23 yards and tied for 27th with 29 rushing touchdowns.

Tailbacks Montrell Johnson Jr. and Trevor Etienne return, but the Gators lost four starters up front, including All-American right guard O’Cyrus Torrence.

UF’s new-look O-line does have potential.

Tackle Austin Barber, who shined as a redshirt freshman, moves to the left side, and the 6-foot-6, 300-pounder from Jacksonville seems destined for the NFL. Baylor transfer guard Micah Mazzccua (Baylor) arrived with a lot of buzz after starting 19 games the past two seasons, but he also missed four months with a shoulder injury and returned to contact two weeks ago. Mazzccua recently flipped sides with Richie Leonard IV, who moved from the right to left side.

Mazzccua now will line up alongside massive Alabama transfer Damieon George Jr. (6-6, 361). A redshirt sophomore, George shined during the spring game but started just three games for the Crimson Tide.

George’s presumed backup was set to be Kentucky transfer Kiyaunta Goodwin, a former 5-star recruit. But Goodwin returned home this offseason because of a family health problem.

With Goodwin gone, FIU transfer Lyndell Hudson II’s role expands. The The 6-foot-5, 329-pound Hudson could serve as backup at both tackles after he started 25 games at FIU.

If all the pieces fall into place, the Gators’ O-line could have upgraded beyond Torrence.

Injuries, however, could force coaches to shuffle the lineup and rely on young players.

Earlier this month, offensive line coach Rob Sale praised the football acumen of Slaughter and first-year freshman Knijeah Harris.

But Sale, a three-year starting interior lineman for Nick Saban at LSU (2000-2002), also knows the value of experience, especially at center.

“You’ve got a lot on the plate when it comes to the center position. Calling the front; we’ve got a lot of motion, boxes, changes,” Sale said. “He’ll be nothing but better. He’s done a good job.”

The Gators need Eguakun to get better during the coming days or their job just got a lot tougher.

Edgar Thompson can be reached at