Led by Lamical Perine and Jordan Scarlett, Florida backfield has chance to rank among all-time best in program history
Florida is one of the bigger surprises in the SEC midway through the 2018 season. The Gators are 6-1, ranked No. 11 in America and will be in a strong position to win the SEC East should they upset No.8 Georgia in Jacksonville in less than two weeks.
A big reason for Florida’s success?
A dramatically improved offense under new head coach Dan Mullen. The Gators aren’t putting up gaudy numbers, but even competent ones look tremendous after a decade largely spent searching for answers and failing to score points. Florida reaches the halfway point of the season ranked 37th in scoring offense nationally (a year after finishing in the 100s) and ranking 33rd in S&P+ offensive efficiency (a year after finishing 108th!). Florida hasn’t finished in the top 40 in S&P+ offense since 2012, an 11-win season that ended in a Sugar Bowl berth for the Gators.
While an improved Feleipe Franks deserves his share of credit for Florida’s improvement on offense, the largest reason for the offensive improvement has been offensive line play and an increasingly powerful rushing attack. The Gators tallied 215 yards in their upset of No. 5 LSU and followed that performance up with 292 yards rushing in a come-from-way-behind victory at Vanderbilt.
All told, Florida ranks 21st nationally in rushing efficiency, led by two running backs, Jordan Scarlett and Lamical Perine, who rank in the top 15 nationally in Pro Football Focus rankings and average yards gained after contact. As a pair, Scarlett and Perine’s numbers are nearly identical, with Scarlett rushing for 381 yards on 70 carries for an average of 5.4 ypc and Perine rushing for 376 yards on 69 carries for the same 5.4 ypc average.
Perine has led the team in rushing in Florida’s past three games, but it was Scarlett’s powerful 48-yard run off tackle that finally gave the Gators a lead in Nashville a week ago.
Jordan Scarlett showing his breakaway speed. This is what I'm talking about for the combine. pic.twitter.com/09VH8berbQ
— Jared Stanger (@JaredStanger) October 13, 2018
In other words, you get the sense that the two tailbacks push each other to be better, and both backs are starting to get the national attention — and NFL draft chatter — they deserve.
If Florida is to reach its third SEC title game in four seasons, this powerful duo will be one of the largest reasons.
But where do Scarlett and Perine, along with true freshman Dameon Pierce, who has added 295 yards rushing at a staggering 8.5 ypc himself, rank among Florida’s all-time best backfields?
SDS ranks the 5 best Gators backfields in “recent” (past 40 years) program history.
1. 1984: Neal Anderson, Lorenzo Hampton, John L. Williams
Florida’s first SEC Championship team (the title was stripped at the conclusion of the regular season) was paced by a powerful trio of running backs, all of whom became first-round draft picks in the NFL.
Anderson was the bell cow, rushing for 916 yards and 7 touchdowns, but Williams added 793 of his own and was lethal as a receiver, averaging 13.2 yards per reception on 21 catches for a team that ran the ball to set up the pass. Hampton was the best blocker of the group and had sneaky speed, and he added 593 yards rushing and 172 yards receiving of his own.
Together, the trio helped Florida finish 9-1-1 and despite the SEC’s decision to strip Florida of its title, the Gators were named national champions in 1984 by 22 publications, including The Sporting News and The New York Times.
With two players (Anderson and Williams) named among the greatest 50 players in Florida program history in a Gainesville Sun series celebrating the program’s centennial season in 2006, this is clearly one of the best backfields in Florida — and likely SEC — history.
2. 1996: Fred Taylor, Terry Jackson, Elijah Williams
There’s a lingering narrative that the Head Ball Coach didn’t care about running the football much until he arrived at South Carolina and realized the league had changed.
That’s mostly nonsense. In fact, Spurrier’s best teams at Florida all ran the ball effectively, especially once the Fun-N-Gun offense had staked the Gators to a lead.
Spurrier’s national championship team in 1996 was no different.
The Gators backfield trio of Fred Taylor, Terry Jackson and Elijah Williams split the bulk of the carries, with Williams ultimately the team’s leading rusher at 671 yards. Taylor was close behind at 603, and Jackson third with 388. Interestingly, it was Jackson who was the preferred man in the red zone and as a result, he led the team in rushing touchdowns with 8.
Jackson also had probably the most famous run of Florida’s season — a 42-yard romp and stomp that all but sealed the Gators’ 52-20 victory over Florida State in the National Championship Game.
Taylor would shine the following season, rushing for 1,300 yards and running over, around and through No. 1 FSU for four touchdowns in Florida’s 32-29 upset win at The Swamp that cost Bobby Bowden another national championship. After Taylor went pro, Jackson was the last man standing, and he led the Gators in rushing in 1998 before joining Williams and Taylor in the NFL.
3. 1989: Emmitt Smith
There’s a John F. Kennedy speech where he praises a group of Nobel Prize winners in the audience as being “the most extraordinary collection of talent to dine at the White House since Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”
Emmitt Smith, who ran for 1,600 yards as a junior behind a mediocre-at-best offensive line and without any semblance of a passing game, reminded us of that quote. Smith tallied 15 (more than 60%!) of Florida’s touchdowns in 1989 and was the sole reason a roster still reeling from mid-1980s probation produced enough offense to be bowl eligible. In just three seasons in Gainesville, Smith rushed for nearly 4,000 yards, averaging 5.6 yards per carry despite facing eight-in-the-box defenses repeatedly.
When Smith departed, Spurrier arrived, and Florida football changed forever, but Gators fans who suffered through the lean years of the late 1980s will never forget Smith, who remains one of the greatest players to ever set foot in The Swamp.
Smith, of course, went on to become the NFL’s All-Time leading rusher, winning three Super Bowls, an NFL Rookie of the Year and an NFL MVP award with the Dallas Cowboys on his way to being inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame.
4. 2008*: Tim Tebow, Jeff Demps, Chris Rainey, Percy Harvin, Emmanuel Moody
Asterisk because …Unorthodox?
Sure. Any list that includes a quarterback and a flex receiver is a bit unusual.
But the 2008 national champions led the SEC in rushing offense and featured four players who averaged over 6 yards a carry in 50 or more attempts (Demps, Rainey, Moody and Harvin) as well as four players who tallied over 600 yards rushing (Tebow, Demps, Rainey, Harvin).
Harvin’s 9.4 yards per carry on 70 attempts remains a school record for a player with more than 50 rushes; Tebow’s 12 rushing touchdowns led the team.
It was a Gators team with so many ways to beat you, but mainly, Dan Mullen’s offense wanted to be physical and run the ball first.
5. Perine, Scarlett and Pierce?
Plenty of season left, but Florida’s on pace to have three running backs go over 600 yards rushing, which has only happened four times in program history.
Further, Florida’s trio is accomplishing the feat behind a line that is nothing short of a reclamation project, a year removed from finishing 108th in total offense and second-to-last in the Power 5 in sacks allowed. That’s a testament to offensive line coach John Hevesy and that personnel group, but it also has plenty to do with the talented guys running the football.