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Recruiting Review: Where Florida stands at running back

Florida has extraordinary depth at running back. Can that continue even after departures?

NCAA Football: Florida at Florida State Glenn Beil-USA TODAY Sports

Through next Wednesday, we will be reviewing Florida’s recent history and current standing on the recruiting trail on a position-by-position basis. We began on Wednesday with a look at the quarterback situation; today, we shift behind or to the side of that spot.

No spot was expected to be more of a strength for the Florida Gators in 2018 than running back. A deep pool of potential contributors with varied skill sets getting slotted into the run-heavy Dan Mullen spread? It sounded like a dream come true.

As it turned out, it largely was.

Florida rotated backs routinely, keeping all but one of its top four options at the position free of significant injury all year, and has run for for 2,514 yards through 12 games, its most since the Tim Tebow-led 2009 season.

Can the Gators repeat that feat — or improve on it — going forward? The answer might depend on whether Mullen can keep recreating the favorable circumstances of this fall.

The Past

Yesterday, I wrote about the significant work Mullen did to make something of the mess he inherited at quarterback; today, I get to write about Mullen inheriting chicken salad and ... adding tarragon, I guess?

While a painfully raw Feleipe Franks was the best QB Mullen had to work with at the time of his hiring, the Gators — intentionally and unintentionally — stockpiled depth at running back under Jim McElwain, trading on his history of turning all manner of running backs into productive players, stars, and even Heisman winners to strike gold on the recruiting trail.

McElwain had a third season from former five-star prospect Kelvin Taylor in 2015, but had precious little behind him, and so was lauded for being able to pair four-star running back Jordan Scarlett and three-star Jordan Cronkrite in the hastily assembled 2015 Florida recruiting class. That class also had four-star Tallahassee athlete D’Anfernee McGriff in the fold as a potential third back, but he was always considered an iffy take, something that proved prophetic when he turned out to be an academic non-qualifier and ended up on the JUCO circuit. (McGriff has bounced around since, ending up at Florida Atlantic, where he played sparingly as a wide receiver in 2017 before not recording any statistics this fall.)

In 2016, McElwain had to move on from Taylor — who had just barely produced Florida’s first 1,000-yard rushing season since Mike Gillislee in 2015 — and turned to a pair of wildly disparate backs to compliment his pair of Jordans, grabbing three-star high schooler Lamical Perine from Alabama and highly-touted four-star JUCO back Mark Thompson. That fall, Scarlett would serve as the No. 1 back and acquit himself nicely in the role, but attempts to make Thompson and Cronkrite his No. 2 did not take, with Perine ultimately emerging as the Gators’ second-leading rusher. And while Thompson remained in Gainesville through 2017 despite a suspension for a marijuana possession citation, Cronkrite became the subject of midseason transfer speculation after missing Florida’s victory over Georgia, and subsequently transferred to USF.

With Scarlett, Perine, and Thompson entrenched as its top three, Florida did not need a big haul at running back in the 2017 class. But it still got one, pairing three-star speedster Malik Davis with the surprising National Signing Day addition of Adarius Lemons, whose star-crossed high school career made his commitment to Florida one that was shaky for reasons other than his desire to be a Gator.

And that was helpful in the fall of 2017, as Scarlett was suspended for what would turn out to be the entire season for his part in widespread credit card fraud by multiple players, leaving Perine as the Florida bellcow, Thompson as his No. 2, and Davis and Lemons competing for carries at No. 3. It did not take long for Davis to emerge as the Gators’ most explosive option at the position, as he ran for 90 yards in five consecutive games after getting just a single carry in a season-opening loss to Michigan, but he would depart the Gators’ plans almost as soon as he arrived in them, suffering a season-ending knee injury against Georgia.

That injury robbed Florida of its most efficient option in the running game, and the Gators went from averaging 4.3 yards per carry in the six straight games following the Michigan loss with Davis at least partially available to mustering more than 3.6 yards per carry just once over their final four contests. Perine would manage to accrue 562 yards and eight touchdowns, but also appeared unfit for the role of true No. 1 back, Thompson finished his underwhelming career without a single 100-yard game as a Gator, and Lemons would show only flashes of his potential, mostly making his mark as a freshman as a kick returner intent on running directly at the first tackler.

But Scarlett’s suspension made him a decent candidate to return in 2018 instead of taking off for the NFL, and McElwain had stocked the Gators’ 2018 recruiting class with two four-star runners — Georgia bruiser Dameon Pierce and versatile New Jersey athlete Iverson Clement — before his firing. And Mullen getting Scarlett to stay set the foundation for a truly outstanding running back corps in 2018.

The Present

At the outset of the season, Florida was returning Scarlett, Perine, a still-recovering Davis, and Lemons to its backfield, while also bringing in Pierce and Clement. That was a logjam that was thought to almost certainly lead to at least one back redshirting, but one that also gave Florida the depth to survive significant attrition at the position.

Both of those things happened.

The latter came in two waves, with Lemons waiting almost a full hour after Florida’s loss to Kentucky to announce a transfer and Davis suffering another season-ending injury — this one a broken foot — a week later against Colorado State. But those two losses combined would not meaningfully limit the Florida running game, which got so much from Scarlett, Perine, and Pierce this fall that Clement would repeatedly work with defensive backs in practice to help shore up one of the Gators’ thinnest positions and ended up tallying fewer rushing yards than punter Tommy Townsend.

That top trio combined for 1,992 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns on 315 carries, averaging better than six yards per tote collectively and no fewer than 5.8 yards per carry individually, and all three sit among the top 15 players in the SEC by yards per carry and the top 30 by rushing yardage. They might have had even more yards or touchdowns, too, had it not been for Franks getting 276 yards (with sacks included) and six rushing touchdowns, or had Kadarius Toney not been used often enough to rack up 204 yards on his own.

Perine (750 rushing yards) and Scarlett (717) have little hope of running for 1,000 yards this season, but have already become the first Florida teammates to each top 700 rushing yards in a season since Tebow and Jeff Demps did so in 2009; Pierce, meanwhile, is the second Florida freshman with 400 rushing yards on better than six yards per carry in as many years, following Davis.

The Future

In all probability, Florida will struggle to put together a backfield as deep as the one it has now for years to come. This six-back mix was mostly made possible by Scarlett suffering what amounted to a season-ending brain fart and McElwain taking two backs per year even after building a stable at the position, one bit of Alabama-style team construction that paid off during his time in Gainesville.

And with Scarlett — a redshirt junior who still theoretically has another year of collegiate ability — all but a given to enter the 2019 NFL Draft, Lemons no longer affiliated with Florida — and, sadly, confirming some of the worries about his character were legitimate — and Perine Draft-eligible, running back might go from a position of depth and strength to one where a single loss could be significant in 2019.

My guess is that Perine, who could be a 1,000-yard rusher as Florida’s featured back and who has famously gone to great lengths to be a Gator, will stay for his senior season and lead a top three supplemented by Pierce and Davis. My guess is also that Davis, a hard worker in his own right, will still be good enough to get carries despite a second serious injury.

But those are guesses.

And Florida’s lone running back commit for the 2019 class or beyond — 2019 four-star Nay’Quan Wright — is far from a sure thing. While he was well-respected prior to an injury that rendered him mostly an afterthought on the recruiting trail, that injury has taken much of the shine off of him, to the point that it is not precisely clear how hot the pursuit of him by teams other than Florida was this fall.

There is a scenario, if an unlikely one, in which Florida loses Perine and Scarlett to the NFL, gets little from either Davis or Wright as they make slow recoveries from injury, and has to ride Pierce — whose shoulders are admittedly broad — and Clement for the entirety of 2019. That would be short of a disaster, sure, but not far from it.

Far more enticing are the scenarios in which Florida’s long-running pursuit of 2019 five-star former Alabama commit Trey Sanders result in a Gators pledge or in which 2020 four-star running back Demarkcus Bowman of Lakeland, whose stats defy belief, ends up in orange and blue — but those, too, seem unlikely, with Florida still seemingly chasing Alabama in the race for Sanders despite having his brother Umstead on its roster and Bowman still seemingly some time from a commitment and not regarded as a Florida lean.

Missing on either of Sanders or Bowman would be far from crippling, and missing on both would be survivable. The 2020 cycle is loaded with good backs, and while proximity and the historical pipeline from Lakeland to Florida combine to make Bowman a logical target for Florida, it is genetics that makes four-star Texas back E.J. Smith a prospect one who will be consistently linked with the Gators: E.J., of course, stands for either Emmitt James or Emmitt Junior, and Emmitt James Smith III sure did look excited about his son getting an offer from Florida.

(I would not expect Florida pursuing and landing — or not pursuing and not landing — the younger Smith to be nearly as high-profile as Florida pursuing and landing Kelvin Taylor was, for a variety of reasons, but it will be a storyline of some magnitude for the 2020 class.)

Of course, while Mullen has done well with the surfeit of talent at running back bequeathed to him, he also did quite well at Mississippi State with the talent he and his staff brought to Starkville, much of it seen as inferior to Florida’s current roster. Six different Bulldogs would run for 1,000 yards in a season under Mullen, including quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, and exactly one of those players came to the program as a four-star recruit.

If Mullen never replicates the star alignment he got this year at Florida, he may well be able to cobble together a successful running game anyway.

But if he can build on the success of this year and add top-level talent to a solid foundation, I think we can safely hope the future may be even brighter.