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Florida Gators in the NFL: Could UF stake a claim to RB U?

Okay, it’s early. But Florida’s got some legends in its past — and promise for the near future.

Houston Texans v New York Giants Photo by Dustin Satloff/Getty Images

Is Florida becoming RB U?

Okay, fine: It’s early to make that call. Like, maybe pre-dawn. But who doesn’t want to be excited about Dameon Pierce’s exploits and pursuit of Offensive Rookie of the Year? He had another good game in Week 10, with 94 yards rushing and over 100 scrimmage yards for the sixth time in nine games. Also, another week, another highlight run.

Pierce is fifth in the NFL with 772 rushing yards. That’s almost 200 yards more than the next closest rookie. He has 898 scrimmage yards, 11th in the league, and over 300 more than any other rookie. He has an elite Pro Football Focus (PFF) grade of 89.0, best among all rookies. Historically, it’s shaping it to be one of the best rookie running back debuts in recent history.

Pierce’s numbers, though, aren’t just great for a rookie — he’s doing things that only the best backs in the game can do.

And Pierce isn’t the only rookie running back from Florida turning heads. Malik Davis made the Cowboys practice squad with an impressive training camp and preseason. In Week Six, he was called up and saw his first game action on special teams. In Week Eight, he was officially signed to the 53-man roster and finally earned touches in the backfield as injuries took out Ezekiel Elliott.

In Week 10, Davis spelled Tony Pollard at some critical junctures and showed he was up to the challenge. Tough, hard running produced 38 yards on five carries — and it could have been even more, as a 16-yard run was called back for holding.

Davis has continued to show Dallas that he might be a contender to for the lead back role with both Elliott and Pollard set to be free agents at season’s end.

Back in Gainesville, there are at least two backs who should be following in Pierce and Davis’s tracks in the next few seasons.

Montrell Johnson, Jr., has many of the same traits we saw in Pierce, including the angry runs DP’s now become known for at the next level. I’m not the only one who sees it.

Meanwhile, Trevor Etienne has reminded me of Kadarius Toney and Percy Harvin with his potential to score on every play. His big brother is paying attention and celebrating.

After producing the NFL’s all-time leading rusher in Emmitt Smith and a bunch of other solid pros in the ‘80s and ‘90s — did you know that Errict Rhett and Earnest Graham combined for more than 6,000 rushing yards as NFL players? — the Gators have struggled to send quality backs to the league for some time, with Mike Gillislee and Matt Jones combining for about as many yards as Graham gained in decent but unspectacular careers. And obviously, it’s gonna take a lot more production on the ground out of UF to seriously challenge Alabama, LSU, and Miami for the title of RB U.

But with dudes like Pierce, Davis, Johnson, and Etienne, there’s hope for a bright future.

A Hot Pick Five for CJGJ

C.J. Gardner-Johnson leads the NFL with six interceptions after snagging yet another one for the fifth straight game.

Gardner-Johnson is the first Eagles player ever with a pick in five straight games. He now has three times as many interceptions as the team that traded him, the Saints. In fact, he has more picks than nine teams.

Emotional Moment for Jeffersons

Van Jefferson had a breakout sophomore season, catching 50 passes for 802 yards and six TDs, and finishing with a Super Bowl ring and a brand new baby within hours of each other. But life has a way of challenging you just when you think you’ve figured it all out.

He missed the first seven weeks of this season after two offseason knee surgeries, the second just before the start of the season. Jefferson finally returned to the field in Week Eight, but wasn’t targeted in 31 snaps. In Week Nine, he had a brutal drop on his first target of the game and ended up catching none of his five targets. It was rock bottom for his professional career.

Jefferson didn’t start in Week 10 and was relegated to just 17 snaps, the fewest he’s played in a game since his rookie season. But late in the fourth quarter, he reeled in his first reception of the season and followed with a touchdown grab in garbage time.

Watching from the other sideline was Jefferson’s father, Shawn Jefferson, who is the wide receivers coach for the Arizona Cardinals and a former NFL receiver himself. With all of Van’s struggles and frustrations fresh, father and son shared one of the most real, emotional moments you will ever see on a National Football League field.

Other Week 10 Notables

Jonathan Bullard had his best game of the season Sunday in the game of the year between Minnesota and Buffalo. Bullard started for the second straight week and notched three tackles for loss among four total tackles. He is now up to four tackles for loss on the season, tying his most in a season. He’s been effective in the middle of the defensive line rotation for the surprising Vikings.

Jarrad Davis was called up from the Lions practice squad and saw his first action of 2022. I’ve watched a lot of Justin Fields over the past few weeks. He’s been virtually unstoppable, especially on the move. But Davis made one of the best plays I’ve seen in containing Fields and knocking down this pass.

Jonotthan Harrison was a footnote in one of the most fascinating stories of week 10. Falcons left tackle Jake Matthews and his wife were expecting their first child as Thursday Night Football approached. As insurance in case Matthews missed the game, the Falcons signed Harrison to the practice squad and then elevated him to the active roster on Thursday morning. It would have been Harrison’s first regular season game since 2019.

Matthews stayed in Georgia for the baby’s delivery with Falcons owner Arthur Blank’s private jet on standby to fly him to Charlotte after the birth. The baby arrived in the early afternoon, Matthews jumped on the jet, and Harrison found himself on the inactive list.

Two more former Gators offensive linemen were signed to practice squads as well. Fred Johnson, cut by Tampa a few weeks ago, joined the Philadelphia Eagles. Jean Delance spent the preseason with Chicago but was cut before the season. Last week, the Arizona Cardinals signed him to their practice squad.

Player of the Week

In Week Nine, the Chiefs’ first offensive play call was a quick pass to Kadarius Toney. Although he only played nine snaps, it was clear Kansas City was going to make it a point to get Toney involved.

In Week 10, Toney’s snap count jumped to 28 offensive plays — plus he took over punt return duties. And, well, I’m guessing Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid knew Toney had never scored in the NFL — because they sure did rectify that quickly.

Toney in motion — hell, maybe even just the threat of Toney in motion — is going to cause so many problems for opposing defenses. He showed at Florida how deadly he could be on jet sweeps and his first one with the Chiefs was a beauty.

Simple misdirection with Toney catching the ball in space on the back side is going to be impossible enough to defend, but even when defenders close in, getting him to the ground is an issue.

One thing I didn’t expect to see Toney doing was going up and grabbing jump balls. Here he does it so easily, he even takes the time to adjust his gloves.

The Chiefs have eight games left in the season before their traditional run to at least the AFC Championship game. In game two with KC, Toney had 90 scrimmage yards and a TD. It’s not unrealistic to think he could put up 650 yards and six TDs in the second half of the season. Downright diabolical.

Play of the Week

Carlos Dunlap wasn’t going to let a Sunday go by between getting sack No. 99 and sack No. 100.

Only 61 men in the history of the NFL have racked up 100 career sacks. Only eight are currently active, including the 13-year-veteran out of Florida. There is a family theme to this week’s recap — and, fittingly, it was heartwarming to see Momma Dunlap in attendance for No. 100.

Here are all of the Week 10 stats (ranked and tiered in order of performance):

The Good

  • Kadarius Toney, KC, WR

Week 10: 4 rec (5 targets), 57 yards, 1 TD, 2 rush, 33 yards, 2 punt returns, 5.5 avg, 28 snaps (44%)

  • Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, PHI, S

Week 10: 1 INT, 6 tackles, 2 PD, 1 QB hit, 83 snaps (100%)

  • Carlos Dunlap, KC, DE

Week 10: 0.5 sacks, 5 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 QB hit, 48 snaps (75%)

  • Dameon Pierce, HOU, RB

Week 10: 17 rush, 94 yards, 2 rec, 28 yards, 1 fumble lost, 46 snaps (72%)

  • Van Jefferson, LAR, WR

Week 10: 3 rec (3 targets), 27 yards, 1 TD, 17 snaps (28%)

  • Jonathan Bullard, MIN, DT

Week 10: 4 tackles, 3 TFL, 34 snaps (45%)

  • Eddy Pineiro, CAR, K

Week 10: 4/4 FG, Long 49, 1/2 XP

  • Kyle Pitts, ATL, TE

Week 10: 2 rec (8 targets), 28 yards, 56 snaps (89%)

  • Alex Anzalone, DET, LB

Week 10: 10 tackles, 1 PD, 60 snaps (98%)

  • Marco Wilson, ARI, CB

Week 10: 3 tackles, 60 snaps (100%)

  • Jon Bostic, WAS, LB

Week 10: 4 tackles, 43 snaps (86%), 6 ST snaps (23%)

  • Jawaan Taylor, JAX, RT

Week 10: 64 snaps (100%)

  • C.J. Henderson, CAR, CB

Week 10: 1 tackle, 44 snaps (70%), 8 ST snaps (28%)

  • Tommy Townsend, KC, P

Week 10: 2 punts, 45.5 avg

The Limited

  • Dante Fowler, Jr., DAL, OLB

Week 10: 3 tackles, 20 snaps (31%)

  • Malik Davis, DAL, RB

Week 10: 5 rush, 38 yards, 11 snaps (13%), 14 ST snaps (47%)

  • Brandon Powell, LAR, WR

Week 10: 1 rush, 7 yards, 2 KR, 16.0 avg, 3 PR, 10.0 avg, 5 snaps (8%), 16 ST snaps (57%)

  • Jarrad Davis, DET, LB

Week 10: 2 tackles, 1 PD, 12 snaps (20%), 15 ST snaps (52%)

  • Taven Bryan, CLE, DT

Week 10: 1 tackle, 34 snaps (49%), 7 ST snaps (30%)

  • Tyrie Cleveland, DEN, WR

Week 10: 3 targets, 0 rec, 2 KR, 9.0 avg, 27 snaps (34%), 23 ST snaps (79%)

  • T.J. Slaton, GB, DT

Week 10: 21 snaps (25%), 10 ST snaps (33%)

  • Keanu Neal, TB, S

Week 10: 6 ST snaps (29%)

  • Stone Forsythe, SEA, T

Week 10: 2 ST snaps (10%)

The Inactive

  • Evan McPherson, CIN, K: Bye Week
  • Zach Carter, CIN, DT: Bye Week
  • Trent Brown, NE, RT: Bye Week
  • Marcell Harris, NYJ, LB/S: Bye Week
  • Demarcus Robinson, BAL, WR: Bye Week
  • Kaiir Elam, BUF, CB: Inactive (Ankle)
  • Marcus Maye, NO, S: Inactive (Abdomen)
  • D.J. Humphries, ARI, LT: Inactive (Back)
  • Max Garcia, ARI, G: Inactive (Shoulder)
  • Feleipe Franks, ATL, TE: Inactive (Calf)
  • Jonathan Greenard, HOU, DE: Injured Reserve
  • Kyle Trask, TB, QB: Inactive
  • Teez Tabor, SEA, S: Inactive
  • Jonotthan Harrison, ATL, OL: Inactive

The Practice Squad

  • Jean Delance, ARI, OL
  • Fred Johnson, PHI, OL
  • Freddie Swain, MIA, WR
  • La’mical Perine, MIA, RB
  • Jeff Driskel, HOU, QB
  • David Sharpe, BAL, T
  • Jeremiah Moon, BAL, LB
  • Jabari Zuniga, NO, DE
  • Duke Dawson, PIT, DB
  • Quincy Wilson, PIT, DB