Florida Gators National Signing Day preview: running back

First up on the roster and recruiting breakdowns heading into National Signing Day was quarterback, but now it’s time for the running back position. Here is where UF stands looking at the February signing period that’s coming up soon.

All recruiting rankings come from the 247 Sports Composite, which balances recruiting rankings from all of the major services.

  • Departing: Mark Thompson
  • Returning: JR Lamical Perine, SO Malik Davis, SO Adarius Lemons
  • Suspension limbo: RJR Jordan Scarlett
  • Signed: Dameon Pierce, 4-star (0.9220); Iverson Clement, 4-star (0.9034)

There is really no point in going over any of the unsigned or even uncommitted running back recruits that Florida technically still has offers out on because the Gators are done at the position. Clement and Pierce make five running backs for certain with the possibility for six, and that’s plenty of players at that spot.

We’ll know half of the puzzle on Scarlett soon, as the deadline to declare for the NFL Draft is January 15. Signs point to him wanting to return, because if he didn’t, he’s had plenty of time to hire an agent and file the papers. If going pro was his top choice, there wouldn’t be a reason to wait any longer on it than Antonio Callaway did. If Monday comes and goes without him declaring, then that’s as solid evidence as anything that he wants to return.

Scarlett still would have to face the student conduct board once his legal situation is fully processed. If that happens but his case falls through for whatever reason, then he’d be on his way to the NFL’s supplemental draft.

Even if Scarlett goes to one draft or the other before signing day, Florida is good where it’s at with its two signees.

There will be a temptation to dub Pierce and Clement as a “thunder and lightning” duo. They certainly are different kinds of players.

Pierce, while not totally lacking in speed, is more of a thumper. There are many examples of him running over or through defenders in his senior year highlights. He would be the biggest beneficiary of Scarlett not returning, as that’s who Pierce is most similar to stylistically. Perine also is a tough runner, but at 4.13 yards per carry last year, he didn’t exactly lock up a firm spot in the platoon with his play.

The Composite actually lists Clement as an athlete rather than a running back, and his high school tape reveals why. While he largely takes handoffs, he also can be seen as a return man and running go routes from a wide receiver position.

The path to the field for him is less clear-cut than it is for Pierce. If Davis recovers from his knee injury and returns to his 2017 form in 2018, then the spot for the faster and more elusive running back will be sewn up there. Kadarius Toney then figures to be the top option for a guy who does things both as a receiver out wide and a ball carrier from the backfield.

All spots are open any time a new coaching staff comes in, so Clement will have a chance just like anyone else. The role he may have the best chance at is in the return game.

Lemons and Tyrie Cleveland didn’t exactly impress on kickoffs last year, and Brandon Powell and technically Callaway are gone as the primary punt returners. Then again, Dan Mullen is probably more amenable than Jim McElwain was to using a fast defensive back like CJ Henderson in the return game, making even that a contested position.

The ideal pairing is probably Scarlett and Davis doing that cliched thunder and lightning routine. Perine or Pierce might then fit as the late-game closer who comes in fresh against a tiring defense.

Unlike a number of other positions, running back is not one where Florida needs a true freshman to come in and be a difference maker. This will be a change from recent patterns, as the Gators second-leading tailback has been a true freshman in five of the last six years: Matt Jones in 2012, Kelvin Taylor in 2013, Scarlett in 2015, Perine in 2016, and Davis in 2017.

If Clement or Pierce play well enough to displace their elders, Mullen certainly won’t be disappointed. However, this year’s class at running back is more of an investment in the future than has been typical in Gainesville for quite a while.