When the Florida Gators football team entered spring football practice, they did so with four scholarship running backs on the roster.
On Friday, Will Muschamp announced the Gators were down to three, with junior Mike Gillislee temporarily sidelined with a stress fracture in his foot.
Starting running back Jeff Demps is on the track team and is not participating in spring football, while true freshman Mike Blakely is out while recovering from shoulder surgery.
With more carries to go around between the remaining three backs, senior Chris Rainey has emerged as one of Florida’s top playmakers out of the backfield.
“I think Chris has had a phenomenal spring,” Muschamp said. “Here’s a guy who’s a senior, has played a lot of football – some really good football – for the Gators. He’s really worked his tail off as far as day to day going in and doing the things you’ve got to do to be successful.”
Rainey, who was suspended for five games after an off-the-field incident in 2010, finished the season as Florida’s second leading rusher with 51 carries for 366 yards and two touchdowns.
He was used as a versatile playmaker in the Florida spread offense, frequently lining up at wide receiver as well as in the backfield.
He finished 2010 with 25 catches for 216 yards and three touchdowns, good enough for fifth on the team in receiving.
With a new pro-style offense being installed in Gainesville, many might assume that Rainey’s role will decrease due to his size.
But that won’t be the case at all, said Muschamp.
In fact, the new offense has actually played to Rainey’s strength as a runner more than the spread did.
“He really enjoys getting the ball deeper in the backfield to have a chance (to use) his vision,” Muschamp said. “He’s got great cutback ability. He can take the ball all the way back.”
While Rainey doesn’t seem like a prototypical “downhill” runner, his vision has allowed him to make some big plays this spring.
“There’s a different angle hitting the line of scrimmage, more of a downhill running game,” Muschamp said. “You’ve got to be very gap sound defensively when he’s carrying the football.”
Just because Rainey is getting more use out of the backfield doesn’t mean the Gators won’t use him in a variety of ways on offense, similar to how he was used under Meyer.
He’s Florida’s most dynamic playmaker in space, and Florida will try to take advantage of that by scheming around Rainey’s abilities.
“Charlie (Weis’) whole philosophy is get the ball into playmakers hands and create matchups,” Muschamp said. “Chris will be spread all throughout the field as far as slot, outside. Depending on how people want to play us defensively, he presents issues. You put a linebacker up on him, well you’ve got a matchup problem. If you put a secondary guy on him, generally we’re going to gain a matchup somewhere else. He makes you show your hand defensively a little bit.”
Needless to say Rainey will be a valuable part of Florida’s offense next season.
He’s coming off arguably the best year of his career, despite missing five games. After returning from suspension, he really hit another gear and ran with a physicality Florida hadn’t seen from him earlier in his career.
If he can continue that level of play, he could be poised for a breakout senior season for the Gators.