Roster decisions Dan Mullen has to make exemplified by short yardage dilemma

Dan Mullen has some decisions to make as he takes over the Florida Gators and implements his offensive system. One perfect example of what he faces is what to do when he wants to run the ball in short yardage situations.

As a baseline figure, Florida’s non-quarterbacks converted only 66.7% of their runs when faced with a distance of three yards or fewer to go last year. That’s not a great number. Only being able to pick up two out of three short yardage situations on the ground is a bad figure for an offense that was supposed to be predicated on power running.

Some of that is on the offensive line. It was what it was, and for next year, it is what it is. There are some gargantuan players like Jawaan Taylor and Fred Johnson, but they were not always the best guys to run behind. Let’s just say that improving the line is an opportunity for John Hevesy and/or Brad Davis — however the line coaching situation shakes out — this coming year.

The rub with running between the tackles in power situations is that the middle isn’t as strong as you’d like to see. T.J. McCoy plays with lots of fire, but at 6’1″, he’s a bit undersized even by the standards of the center position. Guard is a real question mark aside from Brett Heggie, who hopefully will not carry any long-term effects from his season-ending knee injury.

There’s only so much that can be done with the line this offseason, so Mullen will need to figure out what to do with his running back rotation.

The only returning players from 2017 with a large enough sample size to evaluate are Lamical Perine and Malik Davis. Adarius Lemons only had three carries with three or fewer yards to go, two of them against UAB.

Davis got Gator fans excited this year once he entered the rotation as a primary back in the Kentucky game. His best game came the following week against Vanderbilt. In those two contests, he succeeded on eight of his nine short yardage attempts for an 88.9% conversion rate.

However, Davis did not see as much success against more stout defenses from there. Probably due to a combination of his running style and Florida’s much-discussed deficiencies in its strength program, Davis only converted three of his combined eight short yardage attempts against LSU, Texas A&M, and Georgia.

Mullen will probably have Davis add some muscle weight in the offseason so he doesn’t look as slight next to linebackers, but he won’t want to do it in a way that sacrifices Davis’s open field speed. When it comes to picking up tough short yardage, Davis isn’t the answer.

Being older and a little bigger, Perine had a better conversion rate with three or fewer yards to go. His was 74% on the season compared to Davis’s 61%. If you winnow it down to one or two yards to go on third or fourth down, the gap widens to 75% for Perine and 57% for Davis.

There will be a decision to make for Mullen when it comes Perine. Though Perine’s style is more based on power than Davis’s is, he also has some good open field speed. Bulking Perine up could make him even more effective in crucial power rushing situations, but it would lower his ceiling on standard downs.

At 6’0″, Lemons stands an inch taller than Davis and Perine do. Quickness and speed are his game, though. Like Davis, it doesn’t make sense to try to make him the short-yardage specialist.

Florida is set at running back in the 2018 class with Iverson Clement and Dameon Pierce. Clement is more of a run-by-you than a run-through-you player, so he is also out.

Pierce may be the guy who fits the bill. He lacks breakaway speed but wasn’t afraid to truck defenders in high school. At 5’11” and 205 pounds, he’s already bigger than what Davis was listed at this year and is 13 pounds behind Perine. If the strength and conditioning program gets as big an upgrade as Mullen and Scott Stricklin say it will, then it may be possible to get Pierce ready to be the hammer next fall.

The wild card in all of this is Jordan Scarlett. He hasn’t hired an agent yet as Antonio Callaway has, and there have been a few scattered rumblings that he wants to return to school. His case is more complicated than the five other non-Callaway suspended players who’ve gotten pretrial diversion — Scarlett missed the Citrus Bowl after the 2015 season due to a marijuana citation — so it’s less clear whether Mullen, and more importantly UF, will have him back.

If Scarlett does return, however, he’s the easy choice for short yardage situations. In 2016, he converted 76.5% of his attempts with fewer than four yards to go. He had a bad time of it against an Alabama front that whipped UF’s O-line; without the SEC Championship Game, he converted 83.3% of his short yardage tries. With one or two yards to go on third or fourth down, he converted 81% overall and 88.9% (16 of 18) without the Bama game.

How good is that? In three years playing for Mullen (2006-08), Tim Tebow converted 80.6% of his attempts with one or two yards to go on third or fourth down. Tebow was much bigger and played behind better lines than what Scarlett had last year.

If Scarlett returns for one more season before going pro, then there isn’t much of a question here. Scarlett will do the short yardage work in 2018 before turning the job over to Pierce. If not, then Mullen will have to decide whether to beef up a guy like Perine or trust in a true freshman.

Taking over a new program always comes with tough choices. Figuring out what to do in short yardage situations exemplifies what Mullen will have to do up and down the roster this year as he prepares for next fall.

David Wunderlich
David Wunderlich is a born-and-raised Gator and a proud Florida alum. He has been writing about Florida and SEC football since 2006. He currently lives in Naples Italy, at least until the Navy stations his wife elsewhere. You can follow him on Twitter @Year2