GAINESVILLE, Fla. – At Florida, running the ball has always played second fiddle to airing it out. After all, three quarterbacks have statues outside The Swamp.
Fans might focus on the passing game, but in 2016, the running game was the best predictor of the Gators’ fate on any given Saturday.
In four losses, UF ran 104 times for a meager 176 yards, an atrocious 1.7 yards per carry. Sacks factor into that number, but there’s no avoiding the fact that when the Gators lost, they got completely shut down running the ball. The four-game stat includes a 30-rush outing against Alabama that resulted in zero net rushing yards and a 14-rush game for 12 yards against Arkansas.
With those numbers, it’s no surprise that the Gators were last in the SEC in average rushing yards per game. With that in mind, Florida fans might be split on whether returning three running backs from last year’s squad – Jordan Scarlett, Lamical Perine and Mark Thompson – is good news or bad news.
Either way, there’s only one way to go, and that’s up.
Rushing yards per game (SEC rank): 128.2 (14)
TDs: 11 (14)
For the first half of last season, coach Jim McElwain employed the three returning backs and Jordan Cronkrite, who has since transferred to USF, in a committee approach. McElwain believed dividing up carries in the first three quarters would keep all four fresh for the fourth quarter and he would go with the hot hand for the final 15 minutes.
The approach drew criticism. At times, it appeared coaches were outsmarting themselves with the rotation, sometimes sitting a running back on the bench right after he led the team on a scoring drive.
More often than not, Scarlett looked like Florida’s best all-around ball-carrier. It took a suspension to Thompson and personal issues with Cronkrite for Scarlett to finally get his chance to be the feature back in Week 9 against Georgia.
When Scarlett was the feature back, his numbers were decent at best (112 carries, 514 yards, TD). A 4.58 yards per carry average is serviceable, but it doesn’t really get you noticed in the SEC.
All three returning backs averaged between 4 and 5 yards per carry:
- Scarlett – 179 carries, 889 yards (4.97 yards per carry)
- Perine – 91 carries, 421 yards (4.63 yards per carry)
- Thompson –68 carries, 229 yards (4.40 yards per carry)
With those numbers, the door is open for incoming freshmen Malik Davis and Adarius Lemons to earn carries this season. What it also means is that some of the carries that would normally go to the running backs may start going to the team’s quarterbacks.
This spring, when only three scholarship quarterbacks were available, the Gators used Kadarius Toney, a 3-star athlete as a recruit, at quarterback. While Toney threw his share of passes, it was his scrambling and running that turned heads in the spring game.
— #InAllKindsOfWeather (@AllKindsWeather) April 8, 2017
If McElwain feels that the running game needs a spark, he could certainly turn to Toney as a Wildcat quarterback or line him up somewhere else for a designed run. After recent developments, however, it appears Toney won’t be the only running quarterback on Florida’s roster.
Former Notre Dame QB Malik Zaire is expected to enroll at UF for Summer B and join the football team as a graduate transfer. Zaire, one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks of the 2013 class, has a history of making plays with his legs. If he wins the starting job, expect to see plenty of zone-read runs and perhaps even some called draw plays. If Zaire is the backup, the question becomes whether he might get certain packages and be used similar to Toney.
Designed QB runs. Even if packaged could be of benefit for Florida by adding Malik Zaire. pic.twitter.com/gjyTcRmUWB
— Cole Cubelic (@colecubelic) June 4, 2017
Kelvin Taylor in 2015 (259 carries, 1,035 yards) crossed the mark. It took all 14 games and an average of 4 yards per carry, but Taylor got his 1,000 yards. After a long draught during the Urban Meyer era – a lot of different players were carrying the ball in Meyer’s spread option, including Tim Tebow – Taylor and Mike Gillislee (2012) are the last two to hit the mark since Ciatrick Fason in 2004.
If Scarlett is considered the feature back starting in Week 1, he should be in line to be UF’s next 1,000-yard rusher. Scarlett wasn’t too far off the mark last season, rushing for 889 yards. For the first six games of the 2016 season, Scarlett averaged fewer than 12 carries per game. That number will likely be much closer to 20 in the first six games this fall.
Florida ran the ball 452 times last season, primarily on first down (199 rushes) and second down (166 rushes). The reason coaches did not call many third-down runs was probably the lack of production.
On third down, the Gators averaged only 1.53 yards per rush. On 3rd-and-short, Florida’s backs were likely to move the sticks, averaging 3.19 yards when 3 yards or fewer were needed. When 4-to-9 yards were needed on third down, the Gators usually went backward, running 16 times for a troublesome negative-36 yards.
Offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier’s favorite place on the field to call a running play was between the 40s. Just above and below midfield, the Gators ran the ball 126 times for 433 yards, and no touchdowns.
It’s distribution, again. Last season, the running back by committee approach was only scrapped when off-field issues made Scarlett and Perine the only available running backs against Georgia.
This year, carries could be split among five running backs (if none redshirt) while offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier might also be looking to find touches for Zaire and/or Toney.
We shall see if the coaches learned from last year’s problems caused by the running back rotation.
One stat that must improve
When it comes to double-digit runs, the Gators lagged behind the rest of the SEC. Florida was No. 10 or lower in multiple categories of runs of 10-plus yards.
- 10-plus yards: 45 (No. 14 in SEC)
- 20-plus: 15 (No. 12)
- 30-plus: 7 (No. 10)
- 40-plus: 2 (No. 12)
- 50-plus: 1 (No. 10)
The Gators need more big plays in the ground game, and they might just have to turn to the quarterbacks to produce them.
Better or worse in 2017
One key part of this equation that hasn’t been discussed is the offensive line. After two years of so-so blocking at best, this should be the season which McElwain’s squad fields an experienced, cohesive unit. If so, it could have an immediate impact.
Of the five scholarship running backs, Scarlett is the only blue-chipper, a former 4-star recruit in the class of 2015. We’ve seen Scarlett carry the Gators to victory against LSU when he ran for 108 yards on 22 carries, but we’ve also seen him fail to show up in big games, like his 11-carry, 17-yard performance against Alabama.
As a junior, this could be Scarlett’s contract year. It’s his big chance to get noticed by NFL teams whether he goes in the 2018 or ’19 draft, so he has plenty of motivation.
While no one expects to see McElwain turn his offense into the spread option, having quarterbacks who can run the football should get the attention of opposing defenses and open up some lanes for running backs. Simply having running quarterbacks should provide a significant boost to the team rushing numbers.
The Gators don’t have an elite, big-name back like Derrius Guice or Nick Chubb, but they have an array of options, many who have impressed at various times. After being near the bottom of nearly every rushing category in 2016, Florida is bound to see improvement in 2017.