In the eyes of Florida offensive coordinator Brent Pease, there is not a lot separating the running talents of Gators running back Mike Gillislee and the Gamecocks’ Marcus Lattimore.
The nine extra pounds of muscle Lattimore carries compared to Gillislee’s 209-pound frame will barely be noticeable at Pease’s vantage point above the field Saturday when No. 2 Florida hosts No. 7 South Carolina at 3:30 p.m. at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
From his coordinator’s perch, Pease will see two physical feature backs worthy of any Southeastern Conference backfield, attempting to churn out yards against quality defenses.
Based on the way each player attacks the line of scrimmage — head first and without pause — it would be hard to tell their running styles apart if not for the color of their jerseys.
“Their speed is probably very similar,” Pease said. “Hopefully, Mike’s a little bit faster. I think they probably fit into what we’re doing scheme-wise a lot the same. They look like they can be the same type guy in running the ball.”
The comparisons are a credit to the work Gillislee, a senior, has put in since assuming Florida’s starting tailback role in the spring.
Though he is a class older than Lattimore, Gillislee is still trying to prove he can regularly carve into a season’s worth of Southeastern Conference defenses — something Lattimore has consistently done since his freshman year.
As the SEC’s second-leading rusher with 615 yards through six games, Gillislee is on pace to break the 1,000-yard barrier by the Gators’ homecoming against Louisiana on Nov. 10. Lattimore is sixth in the conference rushing with 593 yards coming off a season-ending ACL injury last season.
However, the most telling attribute both running backs share is a knack for keeping their respective offenses ahead of the chains and away from negative yardage situations.
Gillislee and Lattimore each have been stopped behind the line of scrimmage for just 9 negative yards this season — the fewest among the SEC’s top-15 rushers.
“You’ve got to have strength, and so you’ve just got to keep your body lean and keep driving forward,” Pease said. “If you can’t break out, you’re just pushing the pile. … It’s just kind of a relentless attitude that you’re not going to go down on the first hit and get yards after contact, which I know (UF running backs) coach (Brian) White and that position group stresses.”
Two weeks ago against LSU, Gillislee converted a critical third-and-1 play on the Tigers’ defense that Pease thought would surely be met for a loss.
Gillislee was hit in the backfield but was able to keep his balance by leaning against the defender and riding him for an extra two yards to pick up the first down.
The pair of crucial yards was just a sample of Gillislee’s career-high 149-yard performance that day.
Fellow senior Frankie Hammond Jr., a receiver, described Gillislee’s style of play this year as that of a do-everything, all-purpose back for the Gators. At critical, short-yardage moments, Gillislee has proved to his teammates he has the tenacity to get the job done.
“Just the fact that he can fall forward,” Hammond said. “If it’s third-and-2 and he gets stopped at the line, he can push out and grind out 2 yards. Little things like that that probably not mean people pay attention to means a lot for us. The fact that he can just keep moving and actually fall forward and get that extra yard or two that we need.”
In South Carolina’s 23-21 loss last week at LSU, Lattimore was not able to create the same second-half heroics as Gillislee.
The Gamecocks’ starting back carried the ball just 13 times for 35 yards and did not have a touch in the fourth quarter. Lattimore also suffered a bruised hip against the Tigers, which is not expected to keep him out of Saturday’s game against Florida.
Florida safety Josh Evans said Tuesday he believes Lattimore has “lost a step” this season coming off his knee injury.
While Gillislee has never carried the rushing load against the Gamecocks before, Lattimore has had plenty of success against the Gators.
A week before playing Florida in 2010, Lattimore was held by Arkansas’ defense to 30 yards rushing. Against the Gators, he responded with a three-touchdown effort fueled by 212 yards.
“Marcus is a real big kid. I know [both he and Gillislee] got great vision,” Pease said. “I think Marcus is probably a power guy, but he can slash when he has to slash. They’re probably a little different when they enter the hole, but once they break out they’re guys that are going to stretch you and make that one cut and go.”