Florida’s running backs are ‘real’ and may be real good, but are they good enough?

By Adam Silverstein
August 18, 2017
Florida’s running backs are ‘real’ and may be real good, but are they good enough?

Image Credit: UAA

They say football is now a passing game, right? Maybe not. Here’s one simple truth about every team to win a national championship since the Florida Gators captured two in a three-year span from 2006-08: Each has boasted at least an 1,100-yard rusher and seen its top two ball carriers eclipse 1,746 yards.

The raw numbers are relatively staggering but not all that surprising. When you run the ball, you control pace of pay. When you control pace of play, you keep your opponent’s offense off the field. And when you keep your opponent’s offensive off the field, you have more scoring opportunities and a better chance to win games.

So while fans may be drooling to see the return of the consistently successful forward pass to the Gators’ offense, what they should really want is a running attack that can keep defenses honest and allow Florida’s quarterback time to read the field and deliver the ball. It’s a basic tenant of successful offenses but not won that the Gators have succeeded in delivering the last few seasons.

Let’s take a look at the rushing totals for the top two ball carriers and leading rusher (in parenthesis) from the last seven seasons since Tim Tebow left town: 1,310 (889), 1,279 (1,035), 1,382 (817), 1,051 (543), 1,565 (1,152), 1,430 (861), 900 (551).

Noticing a pattern?

Let’s jump to the present. Junior Jordan Scarlett is fresh off season which he slowly but surely became the team’s bell cow and picked up 5.0 yards per carry. Sophomore Lamical Perine stepped up a serviceable No. 2 last year, particularly for a true freshman asked to step in as Jordan Cronkrite fell off (and eventually transferred). Redshirt senior Mark Thompson has underwhelmed due to ball-protection issues and inconsistent production but has one last chance to get it right. That’s what is returning from 2016.

As for what’s new, Florida adds a pair of three-star rushers in Malik Davis and Adarius Lemons, of whom not much is expected immediately.

So the question becomes: How good is the Gators’ rushing production really going to be?

“I think our running back room is real,” said head coach Jim McElwain earlier this month. “Time will tell.”

When asked about that comment from McElwain, offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier seemed to focus on one player rather than the group as a whole.

“Jordan had a tremendous season for us last year, almost 900 yards and did some really good things. I think the biggest thing about Jordan was the mentality he brought week in and week out to our offense. This was a guy every week we could count on,” he explained. “We talk about that physical style of play. When you watched him play, he played with that physical style that we want, so you had an actual tangible example of it, and really, really excited about him going into this season.”

McElwain pointed out that Scarlett has improved his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield, allowing him to potentially be a true three-down back this season.

Scarlett was at his best last season when given a high number of touches. He delivered 93 yards against Georgia, 134 against South Carolina and 108 against LSU, all games in which he carried the ball 20+ times. Pro Football Focus noted this offseason that Scarlett was responsible for the most missed tackles among all Power Five running backs that touched the ball less than 200 times and averaged 3.75 yards after contact, No. 2 in the SEC. He was also ranked just behind LSU’s Derrius Guice among elusive rushers in the SEC.

“I take a lot of pride in that because I take a lot of pride in running hard and not trying to get tackled by one man. I’m glad that a lot of people are noticing that about me,” he said, per SEC Country.

In other words, he should carry the rock more.

“Considering what happened last year, I don’t think splitting carries would be the best thing because it obviously got us ranked last. But I don’t know, that’s not up to me,” Scarlett said recently at a media availability.

But while that’s nice, and an increased number of carries will surely push Scarlett past that aforementioned 1,100 yard threshold, it remains to be seen whether the Gators have that No. 2 ball carrier to get the rushing offense to the level it needs to reach.

Perine absolutely flashed in 2016 during games against Kentucky, North Texas, Missouri and LSU, but he hit the rookie wall and did not touch the ball more than 10 times past midseason. Thompson must prove he can be reliable before he gets any legitimate number of touches.

Redshirt senior quarterback Malik Zaire, who has proven to have an ability to make big gains with his legs, could be the guy — if he starts. Wide receivers senior Brandon Powell, redshirt junior Dre Massey and freshman Kadarius Toney should all get backfield carries but surely none will get enough of a share.

Perhaps new running backs coach Ja’Juan Seider can be the difference.

That takes us back to those last two Tebow-led Florida teams. Neither hit either of the aforementioned thresholds with its leading rusher or top two ball carriers. But the 2009 team saw three players rush for over 575 yards, picking up 2,230 combined … and 2008, of course, featured four rushers that eclipsed 605 yards and gained 2,590 total.

Those were different times and quite different offenses. One of those players was a two-time national champion and Heisman Trophy winner. Still, it has been done — and it’s been accomplished by the Gators.

The expectations for a drastically improved offense are rightfully set for Year 3 under McElwain, but if he cannot establish a running game to compete with some of the best in the nation, a deep receiving corps, improved quarterback position and more veteran offensive line may just wind up being talking points at season’s end.

One Comment

  1. Michael Jones says:

    I love our running backs. I think they have been superior to their blocking but the blocking is starting to catch up. Wish we could have kept Conkrite but you can’t have them all, I guess.

    Scarlett has reminded me of Beast Mode ever since I saw his HS film and that has continued in college. Perrine is not too far behind either and Thompson came on strong towards the end of the year and had a great run on a screen pass against Iowa in the bowl game showing elusiveness for a change instead of running in a straight line.

    And the balanced attack thing goes both ways. Running helps passing and passing helps running. Expecting a good year out of our backs.

    Go Gators!!!

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