Our position-by-position review of Florida's recruiting efforts in the class of 2014 continues at running back.
Entering the 2013 season, Florida appeared to be building a stable of running backs. Matt Jones was the logical starter after finishing his 2012 strong, Kelvin Taylor and Adam Lane had promise as freshmen, and Mack Brown was a serviceable backup for depth purposes. Plus, game-breaker Dalvin Cook was committed to Florida, and the prospect of a home run threat in the Gators' backfield was tantalizing.
Jones fell so ill that he needed to be hospitalized in the summer, missed almost the entirety of fall camp, and never quite looked like the player we saw in 2012 before suffering a knee injury against LSU that ended his season. Taylor stepped up in Jones's absence, and showed significant skills as a workhorse, but never quite looked like a breakaway runner. Lane, still recovering from a broken leg suffered in high school, redshirted. Brown struggled to do much of anything after Florida's season opener. Valdez Showers, moved to running back in fall camp, failed to be much more than a receiving option on screens and flares.
And Cook, in Florida's fold for more than eight months, flipped to Florida State just days before he would have enrolled in Gainesville.
That all left Florida with shortages of both talent and depth at running back, and the Gators needed at least one running back in this class, preferably one in Cook's mold.
It's nice to have top-level talent at running back, but even above-average talent at running back can look excellent behind the right line, and even phenomenal running backs can struggle if they have to begin every carry by dodging an unblocked defensive end. Florida's most valuable running back of the last several years has been Mike Gillislee, for his ability to avoid losing yardage even when he was met in the hole; though Gillislee was never quite a game-changer at the position, he put together Florida's first 1,000-yard season in nearly a decade by finding holes and running right through them.
The Gators could use another runner like that (and Cook had the potential to be that runner), but that skill is a rare luxury, and a running back who can consistently average between 4.0 and 5.0 yards per carry, no matter how it is accomplished, is really all Florida needs.
There was about as much talent at running back in South Florida in the 2014 recruiting class as in the rest of the nation combined. Cook and Miami commit Joseph Yearby shared a backfield at Miami Central, and American Heritage's Sony Michel, a Georgia commit, was regarded as a slightly better player than both before suffering an injury that he was still recovering from entering his senior year ... in which he still rushed for 1,840 yards and 24 touchdowns.
Cook and Michel each earned five stars and a top-20 perch in the 247Sports Composite rankings, while Yearby snagged four stars and the No. 44 spot. And with Alabama commit Bo Scarbrough spending his fall at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida briefly had four top-10 running backs in the Class of 2014 enrolled in state.
Beyond those four players, though, the rest of Florida's running backs were less highly-regarded. Gainesville High's own Tony James, an Oregon commit, was both a four-star player and the No. 39 player in Florida per the 247Sports Composite, and none of the rest of the Sunshine State's backs cracked the Composite's top 50 for in-state players. And Florida never really showed interest in James during his senior season.
How Florida Fared
Florida had basically the entirety of what it needed at running back in Cook — a player who could contribute immediately and help an ailing offense, and one who could change the numbers on the scoreboard on any specific play — and he slipped out of the Gators' hands after their 4-8 season, which has to be factored into the assessment of Florida's recruiting at the position. But the Gators did good work to scramble and secure the commitment of former Miami commitment Brandon Powell, an early enrollee, at the last moment.
The story with Powell goes that he was ready to enroll at Miami until being told to hold off, at which point Florida dropped in, offered, and got the Deerfield Beach back — listed as an athlete by ESPN, an all-purpose back by Rivals, a cornerback (?) by Scout, and all three by 247Sports — to commit and enroll in one fell swoop.
Securing Powell's commitment ended Florida's pursuit of running backs in the Class of 2014, with brief flirtations with Minnesota back Jeff Jones and South Carolina back Derrell Scott ending without Florida making any significant push for them late.
It's not fair to Brandon Powell that he will have to be compared to Dalvin Cook — who I believe is one of the truly special players in this 2014 class, to the point that I think he could actually be a fringe Heisman candidate as a freshman — but Powell and Cook are both made in the same scat back mold, so that comparison is unavoidable. Powell may be slightly quicker, but he lacks Cook's top-end speed and size, and if he is more elusive, it would mostly be because he is a smaller back.
Powell definitely fits as a potential game-breaker, but his home run potential isn't the same as Cook's, and he also probably needs a good spring in the weight room to play significant snaps as a freshman, given that he is listed at no more than 175 pounds by the four major recruiting sites.
Is Powell an every-down back? Probably not. Can Powell be a 1,000-yard rusher in the Gillislee mold? I doubt it, at least at this point. But he could grow into an excellent third-down back and playmaker out of the backfield, perhaps like Devonta Freeman at Florida State, if he can add weight and muscle without losing explosiveness. (Freeman was listed at about 180 pounds coming out of high school and stands 5'9", just like Powell.)
Optimistically, Powell has a superb spring and takes advantage of Matt Jones's absence and his own explosiveness to carve a role behind Taylor and Lane as a vital part of Florida's offense, then goes on to have a stellar three- or four-year career in that role, getting more snaps over time.
Pessimistically, Powell can't put on weight and fails to make the rotation at running back not just in 2014, but beyond, leading to him getting recruited over and sitting the bench for his Florida career.
I would lean more toward optimism than pessimism for Powell, because he's an early enrollee who swapped to what is reportedly his dream school, and seems likely to work hard because of that, but I'm not confident in either projection.
Florida got a good player who could be very good in time in Powell, filling at least some of its need at running back. But given the depth at the position in the state and the playing time Florida could sell to game-changing backs, and the success derived from that depth and that pitch when it came to getting Cook to commit, it feels like the Gators took a swing for the fences, smacked one off the wall, and admired it for so long that they ended up with a single instead of the homer they thought they had or the double or triple that was possible.