On Tuesday, we learned that four suspended Gators had been allowed to rejoin the team. Receiver Rick Wells, after past off-field issues and injuries, has one more chance to make an impact in orange and blue, while Ventrell Miller and James Houston add much-needed bodies to the linebacking corps.
The most important of the four by far, though, is Jordan Scarlett. Make no mistake: Scarlett’s return is right up there with Martez Ivey and Cece Jefferson forsaking the NFL Draft for bolstering the 2018 edition of the team.
It’s been a while since we’ve seen Scarlett on the field. It’s not even a strict guarantee that we’ll see him on the field this year either, as the credit card fraud scandal wasn’t his first brush with the law. He was suspended for the Citrus Bowl after the 2015 season due to a marijuana possession citation. Presumably he’ll be on a relatively short leash from a disciplinary standpoint.
But if Scarlett keeps himself clean throughout the year, he should be one of the clear top running backs heading into 2018.
Scarlett averaged 5.3 yards per carry in limited action as a freshman and 5.0 per carry as (eventually) the featured back in 2016. As the back with the most carries a year ago, Lamical Perine averaged just 4.1 yards per carry.
What makes Scarlett special is his ability to break through tackles. Pro Football Focus was high on him for that reason before the suspension derailed his 2017 season. It credited him with 50 missed tackles in 2016, the most of any Power 5 running back with fewer than 200 attempts. Relative to all college running backs who’d be eligible to enter the 2018 draft, his average of 3.75 yards after contact was second and his rate of staying up after first contact (40.8%) was third.
The game where Scarlett’s tough running ability showed through the most was probably the 2016 Tennessee game. Here are five examples of him breaking tackles, eluding defenders, and using moves that prevented guys from getting solid hits on him.
Remember that? That’s what Florida is getting with Scarlett coming back to the team.
Those five plays make up a full half of his carries, as UF was still using a four-man running back rotation at the time. He wasn’t perfect in that game; he was stuffed on a 3rd & 1 and blew a blitz pickup in the second half. It was early in his second season in college, after all. However, it was evidence that he was the best running back on the team that year, and his workload began to reflect that fact in the Georgia game.
Last year, Malik Davis beat Scarlett’s marks with a rate of 6.7 yards per carry, and he never had a rate lower than 4.3 yards per carry in any game. He has a very different rushing style than Scarlett, though, as you can tell from that video above. Little that Davis did last year will remind you of what you see there. Here’s someone’s highlight video of Davis for reference (foul language warning for the music behind the clips).
Scarlett has more power, and the numbers I dug up for a piece back in December on who should be the short yardage back confirms that fact. He converted somewhere between three-in-four and four-in-five short yardage situations throughout the 2016 season. Davis did well in such scenarios against weaker teams Kentucky and Vanderbilt but struggled considerably against the bigger fronts of Texas A&M, LSU, and Georgia.
Fortunately, the Gators don’t need Davis to duplicate what Scarlett does. They compliment each other well, and they should eventually comprise a great platoon for Dan Mullen.
I say “eventually” because it’s not known outside the program when Davis should be back to full speed after his season-ending injury from last year’s Georgia game. Perine is more similar to Scarlett in style, so Adarius Lemons or December signee Iverson Clement are more likely to fill that kind of role if Davis isn’t ready to go at the beginning of the season.
Regardless, Scarlett should be able to get himself back in game shape in Nick Savage’s strength program this offseason and be ready to take the first handoff of 2018. He brings bona fide power rushing to help fill out Mullen’s arsenal. He’s a better back than Perine, and his return means the Gators probably won’t have to turn to the other December signee Dameon Pierce out of necessity. Pierce can come along at his own pace and could contribute if he truly earns some carries rather than being one of the power backs by default.
Scarlett is the real deal and will be a major part of the offense this coming season. He and Davis will make for an exciting tandem that will take some of the pressure off of the quarterback, whoever it ends up being. There were always going to be some number of the nine suspended players who’d leave, but Scarlett coming back is a big boost to the Gators’ on-field prospects in 2018.