Jim McElwain has yet to solve a recurring theme in Gainesville that was among the reasons Florida was in the cellar of the SEC in rushing last year. The Gators have produced just two 1,000-yard rushers in the past 12 seasons.
But led by new running backs coach Ja’Juan Seider, Jordan Scarlett is looking to join the 1,000-yard club a year after he rushed for 889 yards and six touchdowns in 2016. The Gators also have Lamical Perine and Mark Thompson to share the carries, along with incoming freshmen Adarius Lemons and Malik Davis.
After rushing for just 128 yards per game, the Gators have nowhere to go but up. That fact combined with returning parts and fresh ideas make Florida one of five SEC teams most likely to improve its running game in 2017.
The question for McElwain and Seider is if they will employ a similar running-back-by-committee approach of last season, which irritated some fans, or keep feeding Scarlett. While Scarlett proved capable with 93 yards against Georgia, then 134 yards against South Carolina and 108 yards against LSU, it took him awhile to win the job.
The Gators, at the very least, have a better idea of their depth chart entering the season than they did last season. A year ago, it was Scarlett and Jordan Cronkrite, who has since transferred, with Thompson as a junior college transfer and Perine as an incoming freshman.
This year, there’s plenty of room to find a lead back and a more defined depth chart.
South Carolina: The Gamecocks are another program that has seen their running back depth chart flip upside down since last spring, and they too feel much more confident entering the fall campaign.
Now Rico Dowdle (below) and A.J. Turner are leading the group alongside transfers Ty’Son Williams and Caleb Kinlaw. If any combination materializes, it might help Gamecocks fans recall a previous one-two punch in Marcus Lattimore and Mike Davis.
Put it all together and South Carolina has two players that have rushed for more than 1,200 yards, not to mention experienced transfers from North Carolina and Wisconsin.
Dowdle had 781 rushing yards a year ago in nine games, the most by a Gamecocks freshman since Lattimore had 1,197 in 2010, and Williams shined in the spring game with 83 yards on 11 carries.
Ole Miss: There was no question why Ole Miss was 12th in the SEC in rushing last year, and 102nd out of 128 FBS teams. The Rebels lost their top two rushers, Jordan Wilkins and Eric Swinney, to academic ineligibility and a season-ending knee injury.
Wilkins will look to benefit from an increased running game playbook under new offensive coordinator Phil Longo. Add an experienced offensive line, and the Rebels running game is due for a boost. Wilkins, at least, is capable after he had 740 rushing yards and five TDs in his first two seasons.
Beyond Wilkins and Swinney, the Rebels also have Eugene Brazley, D’Vaughn Pennamon and D.K. Buford, who all received plenty of carries in the Grove Bowl.
Arkansas: It’s difficult to imagine a running back having a much better season than Rawleigh Williams III, but the Razorbacks last season were still fourth from the bottom as a team in the SEC. Williams rushed for 1,360 yards last season, but backup Devwah Whaley should be in line to increase last year’s 602 yards and three TDs, especially given his 5.5 yards per carry average.
Another reason for an upgrade in the running game is the seemingly unknown commodities at tight end and receiver trying to adjust with quarterback Austin Allen.
Williams (below) was an unknown entering the 2016 season because he was coming off a neck injury. But he was one of the brightest stories of 2016 and played himself into being a first-team All-SEC pick.
Vanderbilt: The only question here is how much help can come to share some of the load from Ralph Webb, Vanderbilt’s all-time leading rusher.
That could come in the form of Jamauri Wakefield, who has impressed teammates in the weight room in his short time on campus during a redshirt season last year. During Vanderbilt’s “spring showcase” Wakefield impressed even more not unlike another backfield mate did last spring in Khari Blassingame, a converted linebacker.
Last year, as Webb’s primary backup, Blasingame rushed for 449 yards and 10 TDs on just 97 carries. In the final spring workout, he had a 53-yard TD run. Rounding out the depth chart, another contributor, Josh Crawford, also scored to go with 51 yards.