The “Free Gilly” campaign — known as #FreeGilly on Twitter — gains steam with each positive gain grinded out by Gators running back Mike Gillislee, whose “bold” summer prediction of 1,500 yards doesn’t seem so bold anymore.
At 115.33* yards per game, the SEC’s leading rusher is on pace for 1,499.33* yards if the Gators reach a bowl to play 13 games.
That’s just an extra two-foot stretch of his arm for a first down away from reaching the prediction, which was really more like a personal bold goal.
Led by Gillislee’s 115 yards on 18 carries, Florida gained 60.5 percent of its 555 yards on the ground in last Saturday’s 37-20 victory at Tennessee. The 336 rushing yards were most since last season’s win at Kentucky, the team the Gators (3-0 overall, 2-0 in SEC play) host at 12:21 p.m. Saturday at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
Statistical proof of how a steady dose of “Free Gilley” has boosted the Gators’ offense is in the fact he’s been stopped for a loss only five times for nine combined yards on 56 carries. In three games, he has 10 runs of 10 yards or more, including a long of 45 yards against the Vols.
More often than not, giving the ball to Gillisllee leads to more positives than negatives — even in the passing game. Moreover, he has done it while galloping on a gimpy groin for more than half of the 12 quarters played.
“That’s just Old Man River — He just keeps going,” Florida coach Will Muschamp said after the Tennessee win.
Gators linebacker Mike Taylor watches Gillislee from the sidelines on game days after trying to him in tackle in practice. In fall camp, Taylor said Gillislee caught a screen pass and disappeared 80 yards. He describes his teammate in an eerie way, and just in time for Halloween.
“He’s a ghost,” Taylor said. “You can’t see a ghost, can you?”
As for who coined Free Gilly — the “punny” phrase sampled from the movie “Free Wiilly” — no one seems to know. Perhaps a patron at a Gainesville bar, or a fan’s post on a GatorCountry.com forum or some other form of social media that spawned it.
On Twitter, #FreeGilly hashtags began making the rounds last season when Gillislee served as a change-of-pace back behind current NFL speedsters Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey. A few fans believed he deserved more carries at times during his three years behind the duo. Of course, his performance this season has manifested more talk and more tweets.
Muschamp has defended the decision to keep Gilly as the No. 3 back last season, while describing Gillislee an unselfish team player.
“I’m not trying to take anything away from Mike, because he’s running very well,” Muschamp said this week. “But I think we were a little differently equipped. What we’re doing now suits Mike very well.”
Free Gilly has not been mentioned much, if at all, in any mainstream media articles and hasn’t appeared in any headlines that could be found via Google searches.
Now, just four huge games by the SEC’s leading rusher into the season, “Free Gilly” has become the go-to phrase for Gators fans anytime No. 23 bangs big gains between the tackles or bounces outside on breakaway runs. There were dozens, if not hundreds, of #FreeGilly references this past Saturday alone.
Players have been tweeting about it for some time, too. Even running backs coach Brian White mentioned it in one of his rare tweets. Position coaches are not interviewed during the season, so perhaps it was White’s subtle way of showing his excitement for this senior rusher.
“Go #Gators! #FreeGilly,” White tweeted from his @Coach_BWhite account shortly after a 20-17 win at Texas A&M.
Gillislee has freed up Florida’s rushing and passing games. Because defenses are respecting play-action fakes increasingly more after each big run by the 5-foot-9, 209-pounder from Deland, Fla., sophomore quarterback Jeff Driskel has cleaner pockets and passing lanes to complete passes.
In fact, Driskel had the best passing game of his young career, completing 14 of 20 passes for 219 yards and two touchdowns in Rocky Top. He recorded a passer rating of 195.0 with no interceptions and no sacks, an impressive stat after being sacked eight times in against the Aggies.
Gillislee’s effective running sets up pass plays — and victories.
“As the game wore on I felt like we were winning the line of scrimmage,” Muschamp said. “I think obviously in our rushing yardage you look at 330-something yards rushing, when you do that, you’re going to win games.”
“Free Gilly” references even have popped up on homemade signs even though the Gators were on the road for come-from-behind wins at the sites of ESPN’s College GameDay show the past two Saturdays.
There likely will be more signs and perhaps even a few homemade “Free Gilly” or “#FreeGilly” T-shirts as the campaign returns to Gainesville for the first time since the season opener when Gillislee.
*EDITOR’S NOTE: Official statistics for individual games are not broken down to the hundredths (.33) of a yard, and only use tenths (.3) when dealing with yards per game average. To be more accurate as to the pace Gillislee is on, we made the exception to the rule for this report. At the official 115.3 yards per game, he’s on pace for 1,498.9 yards, which is more than a yard (1.1) away from his goal. Of course, Gillislee’s actual rushing total for the season won’t include any partial yards.