No more running down Florida’s running game

Urban Meyer knew full well what the questioner was talking about. The Media Guy wanted to know if the Florida coach felt the criticism about his running game in recent years was warranted.

“Running game? No, we’re one of the top teams in America running the ball,” Meyer shot back at his Monday press conference. “You mean running back or running game? We’re one of the best rushing teams in college football!”

Pardon Urban if he gets a little sensitive about the subject, but hearing somebody cast aspersions on his running game is sort of like a music critic asking his buddy Jimmy Buffett why he hasn’t had a hit lately. Been there, done that. After all, running has always been more than half of the Meyer-conceived version of the Spread offense, if not the centerpiece.

The 2007 Gators ranked 23rd nationally in rushing. They averaged 5.3 yards per carry, 186 yards a game in the SEC and 202.2 overall, and rolled up 39 touchdowns. Not world class, but not too shabby.

It is true, however, that almost none of that was produced by a traditional running back. Tim Tebow scored 23 of the TDs and Percy Harvin six. The Heisman Trophy winner rushed for the large majority of that yardage.

And therein lies the secret to The Spread: The ball can be run from any position, as along as athletes get it in space. It’s just that Urban would like it not to always be Tebow and Harvin toting the rock.

So how was the running back position, Urban? Now that’s another question, Meyer finally conceded. The traditional tailback in Florida’s offense has been non-existent. “Not very good,” he said of the group.

Meyer got a little chippy with the questioner, all in good fun, saying: “You want to discuss that some more? I like talking about it.”

In case you didn’t get the message, Urban Meyer is not only proud of his running game this season, he’s almost giddy about the depth at the running back position.

To put it mildly, over the past three seasons the Florida Gators’ running game has been a bit of a conundrum, a mystifying puzzle.

Everybody runs the ball except the tailback, it seems.

Say hello to a missing piece in that puzzle.

In fact maybe three missing pieces: Running back by Committee.

The Committee can go five deep, but for the moment let’s isolate on Emmanuel Moody. And if Moody had become sort of the forgotten man in the running back rotation, well, he just got remembered.

The buzz around Camp Meyer lately has been about how Moody, Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps have been breaking off long runs, catching passes and even blocking.

There is no hoopla yet, because we’ve yet to see The Committee in action. I predict, however, that some stars will be born at that position this season, maybe even in the next few weeks. Maybe even one against Hawaii.

They’re still talking about some moves Moody made last week in a run where he cut to the left, cut back right to the middle, juked and zoomed 50 yards for a score.

What made that run so special was that he did it wearing one shoe.

“That got everybody excited,” said running backs coach Kenny Carter. “It was a ‘power.’ One of the lineman stepped on his foot right at the line of scrimmage and it came off.”

This is the same Moody, the heralded transfer from USC, who coughed up a fumble at the goal in the spring game and sort of went into the witness protection program on the depth chart.

Fumbling the football like that is the Urban Meyer equivalent of a Brinks Truck driver losing a bundle of $100 bills on his route. Ball security is money.

“That was a mistake I made by reaching for the ball,” Moody acknowledged. Since then he’s been thinking a lot more about football, the playbook and how to hang on to the ball the Urban Meyer Way, “high and tight.”

Following the spring game we heard a lot about Chris Rainey, not so much about Moody, and had not yet to be introduced to the Jeff Demps, the flyer.

After getting what he called only “a little taste of what it was like” in the spring game, Moody has his game face on and is looking forward with great anticipation to playing in his first SEC game

Over the summer Moody’s level of commitment impressed his peers and he began bonding with his teammates. His body healed. And the offensive playbook went from looking like Rubik’s Cube for him to an ordinary road map. He knew where to be, how to get there and the timing it took to make connections. And he seems to be in the fast lane these days.

It’s almost like he’s gliding, because Moody is not only deceptively strong, but deceptively fast.

“He makes people miss and he has great balance,” said Carter. “And he’s also hard to tackle because he’s a big man. He’s so smooth that people are lulled to sleep about how smooth he runs. And when they to tackle him they don’t realize how strong he is. He’s a 400-pound bench press guy, very low body fat and he takes a lot of pride in the way he trains in the weight room.”

It took a while, just learning the different footwork from playing tailback in the USC power-I formation — with the quarterback under center.

Establishing good footwork in the shotgun was a major undertaking at first, but once he adjusted to its rhythm that problem was overcome.

Moody went from being a player chided by Meyer — “Boy, I hope you’re really, really good,” Meyer would say to him, ad nauseum — to a player who will be counted on to perform at a high level.

Emmanuel also had an epiphany, sort of.

I asked Meyer if it was a case of a light bulb going on over the head of the 6-0, 210-pound redshirt sophomore from Coppell, Texas, who, by the way, is listed as the third “running back” on the official Gator two-deep.

Meyer saw it as a case of a “high-character guy showing up every day to get better,” but it is more than that. When talking to Moody, one gets a sense of intelligence, maturity and leadership. Those qualities may get him some touches, even though he can’t match the footspeed of Harvin, Rainey and Demps.

But as Carter says, “who can?”

The new Emmanuel Moody, said Meyer, is due in part to Carter, who apparently has reached Moody on a new level. “They opened their hearts to each other,” Meyer said.

After butting heads in the spring over what appeared to be the lack of an all-in attitude from Moody, the running back coach and the running back sat down and said what was on their mind.

Moody being new and having just been elected Vice-President of the Fellowship of Christian athletes, he didn’t have as much time to prioritize for football.

Nobody expected Moody to de-emphasize matters of his faith — and most of all Carter, the son of a minister from Manning, South Carolina.

“It helped me understand where he needed to merge two things very important to him and how I could help him do it,” said Carter. “And things took over from there.”

Meyer no longer chides him with comments like “I hope you’re good.” The coach can see for himself.

“He is a completely different player than he was in the spring and he’s ready to go play major college football,” said Meyer. “It’s been a while.”

Moody knows exactly how long, because he’s been sitting and waiting for this chance since he last carried the ball for the Trojans in 2006 as the team’s second leading rusher with 459 yards on 51 carries. And if he is, indeed, a “completely different player,” it was also “a completely different offense,” to learn he said.

It’s also beginning to look like “a completely different” running game for Florida as well.

The Committee has a meeting on Saturday and everybody’s anxious to see which running back gets the first and most carries.

Rainey thinks all the Committee members deserve a shot.

“There’s a lot of fast guys and good talent on this team,” said Rainey. “I’d probably have to put names in a hat and pull one out to see who gets the ball first.”

As far as Meyer is concerned, that’s a good problem to have.