NEW ORLEANS — With Mike Gillislee running his favorite play — the “24 Push” — a few final times Wednesday night, coaches will have an eye on the future of Florida’s running game during the Sugar Bowl.
Of course, the No. 3 Gators (11-1) are playing to win against No. 21 Louisville (10-2) at 8:30 p.m., but they’ll look for more opportunities than usual to insert Matt Jones and Mack Brown.
“Depending on the flow of the game we would like to (get Jones and Brown in more),” said Florida offensive coordinator Brent Pease. “They’ve gotten a lot of reps in practices that we’ve had. Mike’s still got the reps he needed and we’re trying to keep him fresh.”
Jones, a true freshman, and Brown, a redshirt sophomore, will be the only experienced running backs returning in 2013. They’ll be joined by highly regarded signees Adam Lane and Kelvin Taylor, but the “veterans” will be heavily relied upon to keep the Gators’ running game steamrolling opponents as it did with Gillislee this season.
Gillislee got the call nearly 75 percent of the time when Pease dialed up a run by a running back. Of the 314 rushing attempts by true running backs this season, Gillislee had 235 for 1,104 yards this season.
If the situation allows, meaning the Gators have the game in hand, Gillislee won’t get the nod three out of every four running plays against Louisville. The Cardinals, just to note, are 51st nationally in defending the run, allowing 151 yards per game. They’re 72nd in yards per rushing attempt (4.33), but are strong in the red zone, allowing only 13 rushing touchdowns — tied for 19th in the nation.
Regardless of the flow of the game, Pease hopes to get Brown and Jones some work. Gillislee will get the most as needed, but another need will be getting the young running backs a few extra touches.
“They’ve earned some opportunity and there’s a role for them within it,” Pease said. “Now, we’ve got great trust in Mike and if he’s got to be the guy that’s going to be out there, we’ll put him out there.”
Jones rushed 49 times for 259 yards and two touchdowns. His 5.33 yards per attempt would be among the top 100 rushers in the nation, but he’s only played in seven of 12 games. To be eligible, individual rushing leaders must have played in 75 percent of his team’s games and averaged four attempts per game.
The 6-foot-2, 226-pound Jones is what is commonly called a “north-and-south” runner, meaning he plants his foot in the turf and gets up the field.
Brown, a 5-11, 214-pounder, gained 102 yards and a touchdown on 25 carries (4.1 yards per carry) this season. Like Jones, he hits the hole quickly and only was stopped for one lost yard.
Pease also noted how well both young running backs have been progressing, especially late in the season. Jones had his best game of the season in a 37-36 win at Florida State. He had eight carries for a season-high 81 yards, including his longest run of the season for a 24-yard touchdown.
“They prepare just like Gillislee in practice and they watch film just like Gillislee,” Florida guard Jon Halapio said. “They’re always around each other and so it’s hard to tell them apart. They’re both hard workers who always are going to grind it out.
But there are differences, Halapio sees, in their running styles.
“Mack Brown is more like a real downhill runner who is going to truck somebody and run somebody over,” Halapio said. “Matt Jones runs with power, too, but he is more of a finesse runner.
“They’re two great players who bring a lot to the table. And they give Gillslee a rest in practices, too.”
If the Gators can get a comfortable lead, they can give Gillislee a rest in game, too.