Image Credit: UAA Communications/Tim Casey
There are oh so many questions about the Florida Gators‘ offense entering 2016, especially considering how pitiful it was at the end of head coach Jim McElwain‘s first season.
Who’s going to start at quarterback? Will sophomore wide receiver Antonio Callaway be fully cleared by the fall? Are any of the veteran wideouts ready to step up? Can Florida continue getting consistent production at tight end without Jake McGee? How will the (still young and relatively inexperienced) offensive line come together?
Where the Gators do not appear to have a question is at running back where a four-headed potential monster is dormant but potentially ready to take over the offense.
“I think we’re going to give some defenses fits,” said running back coach Tim Skipper this week in reference to the versatility of his rushers.
Florida does not have a starter named, though it appears that sophomore Jordan Cronkrite (44 carries, 157 yards, 3 touchdowns in 2015) may be the most likely to win the job. But the truth is that it may not matter who lines up with the ones on the first snap if the haulers become as productive as Skipper believes they will be as a group.
Ask Skipper about his players and he can sing the praises of each, starting with the athletic and versatile Cronkrite. “He gives us something out of the backfield that the other guys don’t. He can run good routes [as he] played receiver in high school,” said Skipper.
Sophomore Jordan Scarlett (34 carries, 181 yards, touchdown), who was suspended for the bowl game after being cited for marijuana possession, has also been dealing with injuries during camp. Still, Scarlett’s also found a way to impress Skipper. “He’s a bruising downhill runner you have to wrap up to get down,” the coach explained. “He understands angles so protection is good. He’s that big back you’re looking for.”
(McElwain, it should be noted, said earlier in the week that he’s pleased with the improved pass protection of all his backs.)
Junior college transfer Mark Thompson looks every bit a Southeastern Conference tailback at 6-foot-2, 242 pounds. Skipper joked that Thompson is so big and tall that he actually has to look up just to coach the player. “He’s a heavier guy, so he’s always going forward on contact, moving his feet. And his hands are sneaky good, too; he has real good hands for a big guy,” Skipper said.
Thompson, though, is not completely “there” just yet. Moving from the JUCO ranks to the SEC, he’s still learning how to adjust to the speed of practice, physicality and general organization it takes to compete day in and day out with the Gators. It’s a day-by-day test that Thompson has just started passing. “He’s learning how to be an SEC back — every day you have to bring it; it’s game day every day. He’s used to game day only being on game day. … I’m pretty pleased with how he’s doing,” explained Skipper.
But Cronkrite, Scarlett and Thompson are not the only rushers competing in camp. Gators fans have heard for years about the tenacity and talent offered by redshirt senior Mark Herndon, who has received tons of praise from two coaching staffs yet mostly seen action on special teams. A former walk-on who has earned scholarships, Herndon missed all but three games in 2014 due to injury and saw limited action last season.
“I think he’s having a great spring. He’s kind of a combination of all of [his teammates] — real good feet, jump cuts in the hole. And then he’s a good receiver out the backfield as well,” Skipper explained.
With such immense versatility, Skipper believes Florida’s combination of rushers adds a major strength to the offense: The Gators can line up in any formation and either run, block or throw the ball with the running backs. That will allow McElwain and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier to display some creativity that could certainly take pressure off the first-year starting quarterback, young offensive line and still-growing wideouts.
“You can take your whole offense to a whole ‘nother [level] when you can get your backs out and they’re just not blocking every time we throw it,” Skipper said. “And then when they catch it, they can make things happen in space. It’s invaluable, man. It’s awesome.”
Unfortunately, Florida’s not there just yet. For now, the jovial Skipper is focused on a combination of his players having fun and learning what it means to compete for a roster spot with the Gators.