It's been about a month since we began our Position Preview of Florida in 2013 by looking at quarterback. Today, we look at running back — and promise that it won't be another month before the next installment of this series.
"You can ride all day long
But you’ll never ... catch Mr. Jones
He’s got a gang that’s far too strong..."
"They used to love to diss me, now they rush to hug and kiss me"
"It takes grinding to be a king, it takes grinding to be a king"
Florida's identity in 2012 centered around a flinty defense and a relentless, stubborn running game headed up by Mike Gillislee, a relentless, stubborn runner. Matt Jones inherits that legacy for 2013 — and might build on it.
Florida fans have, will, and should use Matt Jones' name as a rallying cry for "WHO?! MATT JONES!" cheers that are creative, fun takes that acknowledge the rap that this generation of college kids was brought up on. But, in fairness to Matt Jones, the Mike Jones bar that everyone knows, other than "Two-eight-one, three-three-oh, eight-zero-zero-four" — "Back then, hoes didn't want me / Now I'm hot, hoes all on me" — fits Gillislee better. Gillislee — really, Gilly — was the good soldier of good soldiers for three years, lightly recruited out of DeLand and most often found sitting behind Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps, but immensely productive in his moments, averaging over 6.8 yards per carry.
As Florida's featured back in 2012, Gillslee did less on a per-play basis, but far more for the Gators: His 1,152 yards and 244 carries were Florida's most in both categories since Ciatrick Fason and Errict Rhett, respectively, and his 1,000-yard season was just the 10th in Gators history. Gillslee pushed piles far better than someone charitably listed at 5'11" and 201 pounds should be able to, and scampered for to turn losses into short gains repeatedly, putting together strings of carries without losing yardage that spanned games.
But Gillislee lacked two things that Jones has: Size, and top-level speed. Florida lists Jones at 6'2" and 226 pounds right now, but Will Muschamp told reporters he was slightly bigger than that in late April. Oh, and he was running pretty fast.
Will Muschamp said Matt Jones weighed 230 and ran a 4.4 40-yard dash at Florida's team "combine" other day. #Gators— Thomas Goldkamp (@Goldkamp247) May 1, 2013
Jones also cranked up his game in the final three games of Florida's season in 2012, going for 65 yards against Jacksonville State, following that with 81 yards and a game-sealing touchdown against Florida State, and picking up 16 yards on three carries, including a touchdown that required him to work hard for a couple of yards, against Louisville. In those three games, Jones averaged better than 8.5 yards per carry, a tremendous number, but one skewed by the context of his carries, which came mostly in relief of Gillislee and late in those games. His season average of 5.29 yards per carry is more than respectable, though, and if he can fall somewhere between that and the peak while getting more carries in 2013, Florida will have a bigger, badder bellcow than Gillislee was.
That's quite a change from the sentiment that most Florida fans had near midseason about Jones, who had showed little burst or power as a runner — "They used to love to diss me, now they rush to hug and kiss me" is appropriate for a guy who became the forgotten member of Florida's 2012 class when the decommitment of Mike Davis sent fans into a tizzy about Florida's running back depth, us included. Florida never did get a second running back in the class of 2012, and Davis went on to have a strong freshman year at South Carolina¹, but Gillislee was about as durable as a 240-carry back can be in the SEC, and Jones filled the backup role more than adequately, bridging the gap from Florida's period of greatest worry to a growing stable of four capable running backs.
Most tellingly, though, is the sentiment that exists among many that Jones has fully dedicated himself to succeeding in this Florida program, something that might not have been the case early last season. ESPN's Ed Aschoff and GatorNation's Michael DiRocco have each written about Jones figuring it out last year, which has instilled confidence in Florida's coaching staff, and, to me, that's as promising as anything about 2013 Florida: Jones, with physical tools that well outstrip Gillislee's, is now approaching football like Gilly did.
2012's freed Gilly was one of the singular joys of that Florida season. I shudder to think of what 2013's unleashed Matt Jones might be.
The Projected 2013 Depth Chart
|Matt Jones||Sophomore||6'2", 226 pounds||52 carries, 275 yards, 3 TD|
|Kelvin Taylor||Freshman||5'11", 215 pounds||HS: 237 carries, 2,423 yards|
|Mack Brown||Redshirt Junior||5'11", 213 pounds||25 carries, 102 yards|
|Adam Lane||Freshman||5'8", 216 pounds||HS: 205 carries, 1,624 yards|
|Hunter Joyer||Junior||5'10", 235 pounds||Four carries, 17 yards|
|Gideon Ajagbe||Redshirt junior||6'3", 243 pounds||Played LB, no appearances|
|Rhaheim Ledbetter||Redshirt freshman||5'9", 207 pounds||Redshirted at safety|
The Depth Chart Overview
I think Florida is likely to try to get Jones at least 200 carries this year, and I think Jones is the sort of burly, powerful runner who will get those carries, no matter what lingering injuries he picks up along the way. But if Jones goes down, Florida has another bellcow to turn to in Kelvin Taylor.
Taylor's gifts are his quickness and vision, both of which served him well as he shattered Florida's high school rushing record over his five years of varsity competition at (Belle Glade) Glades Day High School and threatened the national mark².
over his four years of high school. Consider this: Kelvin Taylor has never possessed overwhelming size or speed, and his father, Florida legend Fred Taylor, says he was faster than his son at his age, but Kelvin became the most reliable back in state history despite that. There's something to be said for immense or quicksilver running backs, but the smarts and determination that the younger Taylor has in spades are what elude some physically imposing runners.
And that's not to say Taylor is a plodder who can't handle contact: Watch even a minute of highlights and you get the impression that Taylor never gets handled by the first tackler, and has an almost preternatural ability to sense the exact right move to make a man miss and get to open space.
Taylor may trail Mack Brown on Florida's depth chart for now, but Brown's lack of production to this point in his Gators career suggests that Taylor getting the third-string designation at the moment is more about the moment than talent. I strongly suspect Taylor will get more carries in the fall.
Brown and Adam Lane, a weightlifting freshman enrolling this summer who runs more like Adrian Peterson than any 5'8" back I've ever seen, will likely fight for that third-string spot and mop-up duties. I suspect Brown, by virtue of his age, experience, and comfort with the playbook, will win that duel, and would not be surprised to see Lane redshirt in 2013.
The Far Future
One of the great things about Florida's current stable of running backs is that they will all be back, barring injury or transfer, in 2014. Jones could be one of the nation's best backs by then, and Taylor might have established himself as one of the nation's best freshmen or forced Florida to use an Alabama-style rotation of runners by drive by then. Jones, Taylor, and Lane is a strong, if small, core, and all three should be contributors in any year they're not redshirting.
But Florida's also looking to create an Alabama-style stable of backs, and the commitment of Miami Central star Dalvin Cook earlier this spring is the best indication to date that they will do so. Cook is an electrifying runner, and might well have better speed than any back on Florida's roster right now as a rising high school senior — and he's committed to Florida despite the presence of talented runners who would be ahead of him on the depth chart entering his freshman year.
Florida's going to have to fight harder to keep Cook than it has fought to keep a recruit under Muschamp, but the Gators are fighting for a player who is very much worth the effort, and are unlikely to take just Cook in the class of 2014. Florida's remaining recruiting board at running back is likely topped by Alabama commit Bo Scarbrough, but the Gators could be players for California back Joe Mixon, Georgia's Nick Chubb, and Gainesville's own Tony James, and they'll have Cook in the ear of Miami Central teammate Joseph Yearby, a Miami commit, at all times.
Even further down the road, Florida appears to be in good shape with 2015 backs Jordan Scarlett of Fort Lauderdale's The University School and in excellent shape for Timber Creek's Jacques Patrick. Don't expect the Gators to rest on their laurels when it comes to bringing in good running backs: They know Alabama won't.
The 2013 Outlook
Florida won't be as reliant on its running game as it was in 2013, when the Gators ran the ball 539 times compared to just 288 pass attempts, producing a 65-35 run-pass balance that allowed teams to stack the box and attempt to stop Gillislee while daring Jeff Driskel to beat them. But with the emergence of Jones, Florida might be more dangerous in the running game, and will almost certainly be more explosive: Jones' superiorities to Gillislee in top-line speed and tackle-breaking power could allow him to do more in space, as could his ability as a receiver out of the backfield.
A Driskel-Jones read option from the pistol could be a nightmare for defenders, especially given Driskel's excellent instincts as the conductor of the run game, and judicious use of wide receivers (Andre Debose, Solomon Patton, and Alvin Bailey?), Loucheiz Purifoy, and football multi-tool Trey Burton could force teams to respect the outside run enough to set up fakes like the devastating end-around fake Florida deployed on Gillislee's second touchdown run against Florida State.
If Jones gets 200-plus carries, and Driskel runs between 50 and 100 times — as a quarterback as fast, strong, and valuable as he is probably should, rather than running 118 times like he did in 2012 — that leaves another 100-150 carries up for grabs. I think those are Taylor's for the taking, and would not be surprised if he got 100 carries in 2013.
Jones probably needs to have a few big games to have a 1,000-yard season, which would be the first 1,000-yard campaign to immediately follow another in Gators history, but he might well be on pace for it after Florida's first month: None of Florida's first four opponents was in the nation's top 50 teams in yards per carry allowed in 2012, and Toledo and Miami were No. 118 and tied for No. 104, respectively. If Jones and the Florida rushing offense get rolling early, allowing Brent Pease to bring Florida's passing game along in a slow, healthy manner, 2013 could very well be the first time that 1,000-yard plateau is reached by Gators for two years in a row.
Strange but true: Jones and Davis both ran for exactly 275 yards on 52 carries in 2012, though Jones had three touchdowns to Davis' two. ↩
Henry finished his high school career with 12,024 rushing yards, setting the new national high school record. Taylor finished his six-year career with 12,019 rushing yards by one count, and 12,121 by another. Henry had 462 carries in 2012; Taylor had 553 in 2011 and 2012 combined. ↩