Expect continued balance in Florida’s offensive player usage

One of the biggest questions I had for the Florida offense last year was how ball distribution was going to work. The Gators were loaded at running back, to the point that a pair of former 5-star recruits were fourth and fifth string, and the receiving corps lacked a clear top dog other than maybe Jacob Copeland. Dan Mullen had gotten very creative with the 2020 offense, so I was very interested to see what was in store for 2021.

In the end, the big reveal was not interesting at all. Mullen went back to old patterns in terms of ball distribution.

With two mobile signal callers on offer, the Gators went to a heavily quarterback run-based attack like Mullen ran a decade or more prior. Emory Jones and Anthony Richardson combined for 180 non-sack carries, which was 80% more than any tailback had.

The solution to the logjam at running back was not to, say, send Malik Davis out to the slot regularly to get the deepest position on the team more total snaps. Or, for that matter, to address the lack of slot guys behind the sometimes-injured Trent Whittemore.

Instead, the former 5-stars were essentially ignored with Demarkcus Bowman and Lorenzo Lingard combining for just 25 carries on the year. Dameon Pierce and Davis evenly split the workload, with their averages just 0.02 carries per game apart. Nay’Quan Wright was a little less than a carry-and-a-half per game behind them, and that was that.

Out wide, there were four fairly well defined tiers. Copeland and Justin Shorter caught the most balls at a little over three per game. Next came Kemore Gamble, Xzavier Henderson, Rick Wells, and Davis with between 1.9 and 2.4 receptions per contest. Then you had Dameon Pierce, Whittemore, and Wright all between 1.2 and 1.7 per game, and everyone else was below one. Gamble was the only tight end to get much action, as Keon Zipperer’s catch-per-game average of 0.8 was very close to those of little-used receiver reserves Marcus Burke (0.7) and Ja’Markis Weston (0.6). No other tight ends caught a pass.

In retrospect, 2020 was the true anomaly. There was a clear hierarchy in the backfield, with Pierce having the biggest load (8.8 carries per game), Davis next (5.5), and Wright behind (4.9). Future first rounders Kadarius Toney (6.4 receptions per game) and Kyle Pitts (5.4) were the top pass catchers with Trevon Grimes a solid third (3.5) and a mix of Copeland, Shorter, and running backs as tertiary targets.

Mullen had clear pecking orders in rushing previously, with Lamical Perine and Jordan Scarlett almost evenly splitting carries at the top in 2018 and Perine leading the way in 2019. The receiving in those years, however, was spread quite evenly over a large number of players the same as we saw in 2021.

So what should we expect from Billy Napier’s new offense?

During his time at Alabama, the Crimson Tide tended to have clear top-dog players who’d get as much workload as they could take. In 2013, T.J. Yeldon had 207 carries to second-place Kenyan Drake’s 92. In 2014, Amari Cooper had 124 catches to runner-up DeAndrew White’s 40. In 2015, Derrick Henry had an amazing 395 carries. In 2016, receivers Calvin Ridley and ArDarius Stewart were at 4.5 catches per game or higher, tight end O.J. Howard was at three a game, and no one else was above one.

Napier wasn’t calling plays during that era, but he was still part of the offensive team as wide receivers coach. Did any of that rub off on him?

The answer seems to largely be no based on Napier’s time in Lafayette. Granted, it’s more appealing to load up one or two players when you have a future pro like Cooper or a cyborg folk hero like Henry. No one like that is signing with the Ragin’ Cajuns regardless of who’s in the boss’s chair.

The 2019 season was really the only time when anyone pulled away from the pack. Senior WR Ja’Marcus Bradley had 60 catches to the next guy’s 34. Bradley has been in the Browns system ever since leaving college, so having even a marginal pro receiver at a place like UL would tend to make sense for being a central figure. RB Elijah Mitchell also dominated the run game that year with 198 carries, though his two main backups Raymond Calais (117) and Trey Ragas (116) also broke the century mark.

Outside of that, Napier had two running backs average more than ten carries per game in each season. Last year he repeated the feat of having three tailbacks have triple-digit carries, though this time he had two almost tied at the top (including new Gator Montrell Johnson) with one behind instead of the opposite as in ’19.

Last year also saw Alabama State transfer Michael Jefferson go way above his teammates in yards per catch. He average 26.7 yards per grab, with the next-highest being 14.7 among players with at least ten receptions. Jefferson didn’t lead the team in catches, however, as his 18 on the year lagged five other players.

If someone emerges as a clear top back or receiver, I don’t think Napier would hesitate to feature that guy above the rest. However I also think he’s likely to spread the workload around on the field just as he does off it. That’s what four years at Lafayette have shown.

Florida had some unbalanced offenses in the Urban Meyer days. The 2007 attack was largely a two-man game between Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin. The 2008 passing game revolved around Harvin, Louis Murphy, and Aaron Hernandez. The ’09 pass attack was even more concentrated on Riley Cooper and Hernandez.

Since then, really only with Demarcus Robinson’s 2014 season — his 53 catches more than doubled up Quinton Dunbar’s next-best 21 grabs — and the Toney/Pitts combo in 2020 have we seen anything but an ensemble effort in the pass game. The run game has seen a few more years of ball dominance between Mike Gillislee in 2012, Kelvin Taylor in 2015, Scarlett in 2016, and Perine in 2017 and 2019, though Davis’s injury in ’17 kept the end result from being more balanced.

As Napier takes the reins, expect to see player usage parity continue well into its second decade in Gainesville.

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