As summer drags on, college football season slowly inches closer and closer. In mid-late June, there are a lot more questions than answers about how any team’s season will shake out. In this series, Gator Country will highlight the biggest questions for every Florida Gators position group and the affects the answers will have on this season.
Last time, it was all about the quarterbacks. In the second segment of this series, we will walk through the questions that need to be answered at running back and offensive line.
These two position groups have to work together to be successful, so it was only fitting to pair them up. Last season, the ground game was the biggest teller of Florida’s success. The outcome of nearly every game could be predicted simply by looking at the number of rushing yards the Gators put up.
Florida is even deeper at running back in 2017 than it was a year ago with Jordan Scarlett, Lamical Perine and Mark Thompson all returning along with the additions of true freshmen Adarius Lemons and Malik Davis. The questions in this group are more about how they will be used.
- Will the Gators try using a running back by committee strategy again or will Scarlett get the go-ahead as the main guy?
In theory, running back by committee sounds great. Every running back gets a chance, legs stay fresh, new looks are always coming at the defense and the best player in each game gets the ball in the fourth quarter. That all seems like a good game plan, and it could work if it is used properly, but last season, Florida just couldn’t get out of its own way trying to make it work.
It is understandable trying to keep legs as fresh as possible, but on several different occasions last season, a player would lead the Gators all the way down the field on one drive and then be on the sidelines the very next. There is no rhythm in that. Running backs need rhythm.
Florida finally moved away from that approach for the most part after they were left with no other choice with Thompson and Jordan Cronkrite unavailable for the Georgia game, and Scarlett earned his spot as the feature back for the rest of the season. He is in line to resume those duties this season, but it all depends on how Florida’s coaching staff plans to manage the group.
New running backs coach JuJuan Seider said he plans to help Scarlett get to 1,000 yards this season, but it’s difficult to do that from the sidelines. He still managed to put up 889 rushing yards last season despite only averaging 11 carries per game in the first half of the season and the overall struggle to find holes with rough offensive line play in 2016.
Scarlett just makes things happen when there is seemingly no play. He’s not going to make people miss, he’s just going to carry them on his back as he powers forward for five or six more yards. Seider doesn’t want to see that go to waste, but he also wants to be efficient with his running backs.
“I think a fresh back is better than a tired back. You always remember that as a coach because that’s when bad things happen,” said Seider. “If a kid’s hot, he’s hot, as long as he can keep going. But if he’s looking over to the sideline, he need a blow, you gotta get him out the game.”
- Will the freshmen make any impact?
The Gators added two talented freshmen running backs in the 2017 recruiting class, but with Scarlett looking to take over the feature back role, Perine in the mix after an outstanding freshman season and veteran Thompson also returning, getting on the field could be a difficult task for the young guys.
Lemons was a highly touted guy until some off the field issues sent his recruitment spiraling, but in the end, he handled his problems and secured a spot with Florida. Due to that, his final high school ratings do not do his talent justice.
He could be the explosive playmaker Florida’s offense was missing last season. He will bring more speed to the backfield, but he still won’t be the shifty guy who can avoid tackles. Physically, Lemons is the freshman most ready for immediate playing time.
Davis, on the other hand, will need to add some size and strength before he is physically ready to see the field. That is a lot to ask in the two-and-a-half-month time frame he will have on campus before the season starts. He brings even more speed to the table though and will be one of the fastest players on the team. Davis is the only Florida running back with true breakaway speed, and that just might be his ticket for some playing time this season if he puts in the necessary work over the summer.
Aside from quarterback, offensive line is the position group under the most pressure to perform in 2017. After several years of poor to mediocre offensive line play, it is time for this unit to finally step up. Under new leadership of coach Brad Davis, a lot remains to be seen for this group.
- What will change under Davis?
The pressure was on Davis from the very moment he accepted his new job earlier this year, just weeks after head coach Jim McElwain vowed the Gators would become a lot more physical up front in 2017. That is the reason Davis was hired, to bring more energetic, intense leadership to a group that has been the exact opposite of that for a while now.
Despite a so-so performance by the offensive line in the spring game, there is still a lot of optimism surrounding the unit under Davis. Toughness is something that has to be ingrained, not something that just happens after two short months. The true teller of the effectiveness of Davis’ coaching will come in the fall.
He takes over an offensive line that returns four starters in Martez Ivey, T.J. McCoy, Tyler Jordan and Jawaan Taylor. There is talent and experience, he just has to bring it out. When Davis took over, he made an interesting analogy, telling his players that it is pointless to have a Lamborghini with a bad transmission.
“We have a bunch of tough, physical, athletic football players that really haven’t maximized their football potential,” said Davis. “My job and why I’m here is to get the best out of them every day.”
- Is the trend of young players regressing at Florida over?
This one is mostly aimed towards Taylor, the 6-5, 340-pound right tackle entering his sophomore season. Taylor was a pleasant surprise in his emergence as a Freshman All-American in 2016.
An odd trend has developed at Florida for offensive linemen to come in as top players out of high school, or to have outstanding freshman seasons, and then, for whatever reason, regress each year afterwards. It has not been a good look, especially from a recruiting standpoint.
Taylor has a chance to change that perception this season. With his first offseason under his belt, he has potential to be one of the best offensive linemen in the SEC. He even posted a video on Twitter recently of some intense agility drills from his individual offseason workouts in his hometown of Cocoa, Fla. It’s quite impressive. He is putting in the work to make a name for himself this season.
Up Next: Receivers