'He's a running back playing quarterback': Kadarius Toney could be the playmaker Gators need
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – On a night when the biggest storyline was Feleipe Franks vs. Kyle Trask, it was another quarterback who came away with most impressive highlights: Kadarius Toney (3-of-5, 24 yards, TD; 5 carries, 74 yards).
Early in the fourth quarter of Florida’s Orange and Blue Debut, Toney faced a flurry of defenders in the backfield. He juked his way out of the pass rush, scrambled toward the sideline and found an open target, walk-on WR Tucker Nordman, in the end zone.
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Fans may have been surprised by the play, as red zone touchdowns have been hard to come by, but CB Chauncey Gardner wasn’t.
“That’s a daily thing,” Gardner said.
Toney has only been a UF student for roughly 94 days, enrolling on Jan. 5 to little fanfare. When discussing Florida’s recruiting at quarterback for the 2017 class, the focus was always on pro-style prospect Jake Allen. Toney, a 3-star recruit out of Eight Mile, Ala., was labeled an athlete, indicating he could play multiple positions.
Recruiting analysts had pegged Toney as a likely receiver with the Gators, but that was before QB Luke Del Rio was ruled out for spring due to shoulder surgery. With only two other scholarship quarterbacks on roster, the door opened for Toney to get reps under center. McElwain signed the dual-threat quarterback for his ability to make plays like the touchdown pass, even though that’s not necessarily what the coaches taught him this spring.
“That’s one of those things that, sometimes playmakers make plays right?” McElwain said. “You know the old, ‘Ah, don’t do that — way to go.’”
The Gators are desperate to find another playmaker on offense. WR Antonio Callaway has repeatedly demonstrated that he’s electric with the ball in his hands, but that requires a quarterback being able to get him the ball while opposing defenses are focused on making him a non-factor. The quarterback half of the equation has been problematic ever since Will Grier’s suspension in October 2015.
While Franks established himself as the leader in the competition for the starting quarterback job, he was only 8-of-14 passing on Friday night against a second-team defense, often missing high on his throws. Callaway can’t make plays if the pass is out of reach, but Toney gives the Gators a playmaker who only needs a center to put the ball in his hands.
Florida has not featured a Wildcat quarterback in its first two seasons under McElwain, but that doesn’t mean it’s not in the playbook. Earlier in the spring, McElwain reminded reporters that Alabama running backs Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy all took Wildcat snaps during his years as the Crimson Tide’s offensive coordinator. Gardner explained why Toney perfectly fits the Wildcat role in McElwain’s offense.
“He’s quick, elusive. He’s a running back playing quarterback,” Gardner said. “And when he’s out there, like coach says, you’ve gotta respect the guy. He’s just like any other quarterback. We treat him the same.”
Toney’s running capabilities were evident on the game’s final play, when he took off for 34 yards (possibly more if he hadn’t tripped himself up). It was the longest run of the night, topping running backs Mark Thompson (27 yards), Jordan Scarlett (10) and Lamical Perine (7). Having a trio of returning running backs is seen as a plus for this year, but those three, along with departed RB Jordan Cronkrite (transfer), combined for the SEC’s lowest-ranked rushing attack (128.2 yards per game) last season.
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“You obviously see it. He’s an electrifying player. He just creates plays,” Franks said of his fellow quarterback. “In my opinion, I think he’s a really good quarterback. He just creates little plays that might be a 2-yard gain into a 30-yard gain. He’s just one of those kinds of players.”
Those kinds of players are exactly what the Florida offense has been missing the past few seasons. The running backs have flashed the ability to break long runs, but they haven’t done it as often as the rest of the SEC. When it came to runs of 10-plus yards last season, Florida was last in the conference with only 45.
Adding to Toney’s intrigue is his ability to do more than a typical Wildcat quarterback, often a player who either carries the ball or throws a short pass. McElwain hinted that Toney can throw it deeper than he got to show Friday night.
“We never did play-action, put it deep, like he was able to show during practice,” McElwain said, “but he’s got a very strong arm.”
Teasing Toney’s arm strength could be McElwain toying with Michigan, or it could be a sign of things to come in the fall. For now, all we know is that the Gators have found a playmaker at quarterback. McElwain knows he needs to find a way to get Toney on the field.
“He’s a guy that needs to have the ball in his hands.”