We're previewing the 2016 Florida Gators roster on a position-by-position basis for the next two weeks. Today, Eric takes a look at running back, where Florida's depth is newly impressive.
It's been a long time since Florida had a dominant rushing attack. It's also been a long time since Florida had a dominant running back. And Florida may not have either on its 2016 roster — though there's reason to believe it may be able to cobble together the former, even without the latter.
You have to go back to the 2012 season to find the last Florida back to average five yards per carry on more than 50 carries. (Who? Matt Jones.) A year prior to that, Florida had three rushers (Jeff Demps, Mike Gillislee, and Chris Rainey) over five yards per carry, each with more than 300 yards that season. Yes, that 2011 offense, under that coordinator and that head coach, boasted what seemingly on paper was an elite run game. And the 2012 offense actually finished 10th in Rushing S&P+, believe it or not.
Of course, we don't remember that offense's peak, but the lulls, and an approach that tried to fit square pegs into round holes. (The nose-dive to 101st in Rushing S&P+ in the last two years of Will Muschamp's tenure helped with legacy.) I don't know if this 2016 team can return to those 2011 or 2012 numbers, and to try and predict that would be silly considering all the variables.
But I do know Florida has three backs who each bring something different to the table, and I do think that, used together, they can be one of the better units in the SEC.
Jim McElwain has been bullish in recruiting running backs since he got to Florida. After landing four-star running back Jordan Scarlett early in 2015, he stayed on three-star RB Jordan Cronkrite, eventually adding both to last year's recruiting class. Then he duplicated that strategy again this past cycle, first landing the No. 1 junior college RB in the country, Mark Thompson, and later fending off Alabama to pluck three-star RB Lamical Perine from his home state.
There's reason to believe that numbers are available for any of those backs if they can become a feature back. Last year's rushing attack was anything but explosive, averaging 3.48 yards per carry, good for 119th nationally — yet Kelvin Taylor still managed over 1,000 yards, 13 TDs, and four yards per carry. Those aren't overly impressive numbers on paper, but when you consider the extremely green offensive line he was running behind, they seem a bit better. And to my eye, McElwain and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier did a great job of scheming to hide the line's deficiencies while managing to showcase Taylor's strengths.
Florida returns four starters on the offensive line this year, after having just one in 2015, and now has six players with game experience, rather than two. It's still a young line that needs time to mesh, but a few players flashed last season that make you feel good when projecting their future. Martez Ivey, Tyler Jordan, and Fred Johnson all held their own when their numbers were called, sometimes in crucial moments. Pairing them with two upperclassmen in David Sharpe and Cameron Dillard, the line has a chance to go from serviceable to favorable.
Florida's 2016 run offense should look completely different than last season's. And I don't expect Mac and Nuss to lean on one back like they did with Kelvin: They have too many toys to play with, and they have proven they are going to mold the offense around the players they have to fit their abilities.
Early enrollee Mark Thompson has been the hottest back on Twitter since he stepped on campus, and for good reason. At 6'2" and about 240 pounds, Thompson is a load, the Tonka trunk in this metaphor. Yet he's not the straight-line downhill runner that most backs his size are: He has very quick feet for his size and shows nice wiggle as he maneuvers through holes.
Thompson is also arguably the most experienced member of the backs, and size plus experience typically is the recipe for every every-down back in the SEC. His showing at the spring game was impressive for its vision and his surprising speed, despite him coughing up a fumble in the redzone, a huge no-no.
But he's also stepping into a backfield where the competition will be heated, with other young bucks starving for carries. What might set Thompson apart is a sense of urgency, because he has only one or two years to prove to NFL teams he is worthy of being drafted. NFL teams like to draft backs with low mileage on them, so this season may already be make-or-break for Thompson.
Of course, if he's great enough on Saturdays this fall to play on Sundays next fall, it will probably be a special season for him, and maybe for Florida.
Behind Thompson, there's more potential, and also more youth.
Jordan Scarlett carried a lot of hype heading into the 2015 season after being a highly sought-after recruit from powerhouse program St. Thomas Aquinas. Scarlett seemed to stand out in practice in fall camp last year and had the coaches and players gushing over him.
But there were a couple of things that held Scarlett back from producing like we thought he would. He struggled to gain the trust of the coaching staff due to his ball security issues and work ethic in practice. And Scarlett only made the path to more playing time more difficult when he was cited for marijuana possession just a few days before the bowl game. Scarlett handled the situation well, saying all the right things afterwards, but this still leaves him with a more uphill battle than his running mates.
Scarlett repped with the second unit in the spring game and wasn't able to get anything significant going. He's having trouble putting his foot in the ground and getting vertical on his runs and it's hurting his growth. I think his running style is a bit stiff, and that's another reason he's behind on the depth chart. All things considered, though, he still has the top-end speed to be a home-run hitter, and seems like the most likely back to add a dimension in the run game that Florida has been lacking for a long time: Explosiveness.
Jordan Cronkrite, by contrast, was one of the many pleasant surprises of 2015. Cronkrite was a four-star athlete coming out of high school, but was less highly-regarded as a runner, and for a while felt like "the other Jordan." That was partly because we hadn't seen him play; when he did, that narrative changed quickly.
Cronkrite plays above his size, which we saw evidence of in Florida's opener, as he ran over a defender at the goal line to score his first collegiate touchdown. Cronkrite also has a skillset tailored to the third-down back role: He shows great effort in pass blocking, and has soft hands allowing him to be a threat in the pass game. But McElwain isn't limiting him to that: He seemingly trusts Cronk the most of Florida's backs right now, and gave him the start in the spring game.
Cronkite strikes me as a utility player, because he seems to do everything well, but isn't truly great at one thing, at least not yet. He should get plenty of snaps as a safety blanket, if nothing else, because a player like Cronkrite next to a QB doesn't limit playcalling.
That leaves Lamical Perine as an odd man out. He's seemingly not as big as Thompson, not as fast as Scarlett, and not as well-rounded as Cronkrite. He won't necessarily redshirt, especially considering running back is arguably the easiest position for a smooth transition from high school to college, but Perine didn't have the opportunity to enroll early and get a jump start on the fall like other freshmen stars of the past, so it's going to be hard for him to see playing time early especially given the depth in the backfield.
That's not necessarily a reflection on what he can do and could be. Perine has a thick frame, and is a cut-back runner who uses his vision to create big plays. If he can give Florida even half of the production his cousin Samaje Perine gives Oklahoma, he can become a staple in this offense. He may have to wait a year to get on the field but when he does, I expect him to turn some heads.
I'm thrilled to see what this stable of running backs is capable of on Saturdays. I think the ground game is going to take a lot of pressure off of whoever is under center. It should also open up some big plays down the field for receivers if teams try to put extra men in the box. It's time to get excited about the young playmakers that are being added to this program.
And I know we've been excited about running backs before. But this time's different. I think. (I hope?)