Before spring practice began, Gator Country took a look at the top eight position battles to keep an eye on during spring practice. Now that spring is over, we’ll take a look at how those position battles played out over the past couple weeks.
In part four of our series, we take a look at the engine that makes the Gators offense go – running back.
There wasn’t a single position that was more important and relied upon more in 2012 than running back. And from what we’ve seen this spring, 2013 won’t be much different.
To say the passing game struggled in 2012 would be putting it nicely but Mike Gillislee was able to pick up the slack and Florida finished the season with the third best rushing attack in the SEC (187.69 ypg).
The running game will again be the focal point of the offense as the Gators wait for Jeff Driskel to take the next step in his maturation as a quarterback and for a reliable playmaker to emerge at wide receiver.
Despite losing Mike Gillislee’s 1,152 yards of rushing and his 10 touchdowns, Florida has a talented stable of backs that should pick up right where Gillislee left off.
It took some time, but the light switched on for Matt Jones last season. Jones rushed for 162 of his 275 yards and scored two of his three touchdowns on the year in the last three games of the season.
Jones best game came against FSU where he carried the ball eight times for 81 yards and a touchdown that all but put the game on ice in the fourth quarter.
Jones is every bit of the 6’2” 226 pounds that he is listed at and he runs with violent intentions. Jones is more likely to go through you than around you, something that won’t take SEC defenses too long to figure out.
Participating in his first spring practice, Jones took the time to improve his game by getting in the weight room and the playbook.
“This spring I came out working on my quickness and power and definitely in the weight room,” Jones said. “This spring is going well for me. I’m picking up on new plays and new concepts of the game and learning the game better. I’m very comfortable. I feel like I know everything. I think I understand the concepts of the game and everything. I feel very comfortable this year”
The son of former Gator great and NFL running back, Fred Taylor, Kelvin has dealt with comparisons to his father since he first started playing football.
As he enters college, Kelvin doesn’t worry about trying to replace his father; he just wants to create his own legacy at the University of Florida.
“I think the pressure on him will probably come from making sure he gets the blitz pickup correct and doesn’t get the quarterback killed more so than hearing he’s the son of a former Gator, former NFL player,” The elder Taylor said of his son. “I think he’s gotten used to that portion of it. He had a lot of fame and stardom in high school, so I just tell him this is a different level, a different monster, it’s like pressing reset all over again.”
While Kelvin might have hit the reset button when he enrolled early at Florida, it didn’t take him long to adjust to the college game.
“He responded well,” Matt Jones said of Taylor. “He came out humble and when he got the ball he did what he does with it. He kept pounding the ball. He’s a quick guy, athletic and he did what he had to do.”
He picked up the game quickly and while he still has some work to do, his head coach is pleased with the progress that Taylor has made.
“Kelvin’s got a really strong lower body,” Muschamp said. “He runs through contact extremely well. He has natural instincts in the run game, but we just have to continue to get the turns, the reps, the protections and all the things you have to be able to do for us at running back. But I’m extremely pleased with his progress.”
A redshirt junior, Brown has seen a lot of change since he enrolled in school at Florida. Despite this being Brown’s fourth year on campus, it is the first time he has had the same offensive coordinator and playbook in back-to-back seasons.
Brown entered the spring as the most veteran player at the position and right in the mix to earn a starting spot.
With Brown, it’s not athletic ability that has held him back, rather his knowledge of the playbook and ability to pass protect. He did some of those things better this spring but he’s still not at the level you want to see from a player who has been on campus this long.
Herndon entered spring practice as a relative unknown. He made sure to introduce himself to Gator fans this spring.
The most surprising standout this spring, Herndon has firmly planted himself right in the think of things in the backfield and will contend for playing time this fall.
Herndon saw a lot of reps in the spring game and showed great flat out speed, quickness and vision. A walk-on, Herndon might have earned himself a scholarship with the way he played this spring.
Unlike the other positions we have reviewed to this point, you can put this position battle in the books.
Matt Jones will be the Gators starting running back in 2013.
Jones was so impressive in the first 14 practices, that the coaching staff basically gave him the day off for the Orange and Blue Debut.
“Matt’s had a really outstanding spring,” Will Muschamp said. “We have a good comfort level of where he is as a player.”
While Jones has clearly taken the starting position, he isn’t a player who will rest on his laurels.
“It was a tough job at first competing with those guys. Like I said all the running backs are great running backs, all of them have talent. It was a great competition. I still can’t fall off right now. I still got to keep on going and keep on being humble.”
Behind Jones, the remaining three running backs will all continue to battle for reps. From what we saw this spring, Taylor, Herndon and Brown would be the depth chart after Jones.
With the physical style of running that Matt Jones brings to the table mixed with Taylor’s vision and quickness, the duo could form a sort of thunder and lightning pairing in the backfield for Florida.
It may come as a surprising stat but the Florida Gators have never had back-to-back 1,000-yard rushers in their 106-year history. With Jones poised to take the majority of the carries this season, 2013 could be the first time that Florida achieves that milestone.