Running back depth transforming Gators’ offense

Running back recruiting has been an adventure for the Gators in recent years, to say the least. They failed to sign a high school running back in each of the past two classes. They haven’t even had one committed to them since Keyvone Lee decommitted two years ago this day.

And yet, as the Gators begin preparations for the 2021 season, running back is the deepest position on the team. The five-man group should be the focal point of UF’s offense this fall.

Thank goodness for the transfer portal, right?

Other than the Georgia win, you could make an argument that landing Demarkcus Bowman was the Gators’ biggest win of 2020. Bowman was a five-star prospect that the Gators led for at one point before Clemson swooped him away. He entered the transfer portal after just two games with the Tigers and chose UF as his next destination two days later.

Bowman’s commitment came just nine months after five-star Miami transfer Lorenzo Lingard enrolled at Florida. Both Bowman and Lingard are known for their elite acceleration and explosiveness, though Lingard is still battling back from a knee injury.

The Gators are so deep at running back that Bowman and Lingard are nothing more than depth pieces at the moment. Dameon Pierce, Nay’Quan Wright and Malik Davis were the top three backs on last year’s team and won’t give up their carries easily. Pierce embraces the competition that Bowman adds to the position and looks to step up his leadership.

“The more the merrier,” Pierce said. “The more people to learn from. It’s a bigger bond between everybody. With me being one of the older guys in the room, it changed my role a lot. I’m wanting to make sure those guys are prepared for everything and comfortable.”

The five players complement each other well with their varying skillsets. Pierce is a bruising bulldozer who improved in pass protection last year. Davis is a shifty player who excels in the passing game. Rumor has it he’s still wide open on a wheel route in Jacksonville. He’s one of only six backs in school history to eclipse the 100-yard receiving mark in a game. Wright is probably their best all-around back. He runs like a bowling bowl and is a weapon in the passing game.

Coach Dan Mullen said they may take advantage of their depth and diversity in the backfield by utilizing some more two-back sets.

“Last year, we would have been hard-pressed to want to take Kyle Pitts off the field a whole lot or Kadarius Toney off the field a whole lot,” Mullen said. “And I mean for us, when you get into ‘Do we have our best guys on the field? Are we putting them in positions to be successful?’ If you have depth at running back, you can probably play some more running backs, so that’s what we’re going to continue to evaluate through spring and getting into fall camp.”

Of course, the increased reliance on the running back position is part of a larger shift in the style of offense the Gators will play this season. Kyle Trask threw the ball more than 36 times per game in 2020. While part of that was due to the offensive line not being able to generate much push in the ground game, it mostly had to do with having a Heisman finalist at quarterback and potentially a pair of first round draft picks in Pitts and Toney. Mullen would’ve been foolish to have not thrown it 36 times per game.

With Trask, Pitts, Toney and Trevon Grimes gone and a more mobile quarterback running the show, the offense will more closely resemble the run-first, read-option attack that Mullen made famous as Florida’s offensive coordinator.

“With Emory [Jones], like I said, you open up the offense more, you have more options, you have more opportunities to make more plays down the field, and that’s one thing I’m very excited to get back to,” Pierce said. “The run game, we’re going to come off Emory. If they play Emory, he’s going to give us the ball. If they play us, he going to take it.

“We are all team-oriented man. Whatever goes for the team, we’re with it. We’re going to go with it. We’re going to do our part with it in play-action, protecting the quarterback. We’re going to do our part. We’re going to be happy. We’re all going to reap the same benefits. We’re all going to get the win, man. Everything’s for the win.”

Mullen is excited for the many different directions he can go with this offense. He’s looking forward to discovering what his players do best and crafting his scheme around those strengths.

“We have the flexibility to go back and be 50-50 balanced,” he said. “We can be a run, ball-control team and control the clock. We can be up-tempo or slow tempo, whatever is going to fit the program or team as a whole within the framework of our offense. And then we just kind of evaluate this spring, throw a bunch of stuff [at them]. There will be some things that we did last year we won’t do as much this year and some things that we didn’t do last year that will be thrown into the offense for what we think [are] the strengths of our players right now. We’ll continue to tweak that through spring, through summer, through training camp and, usually, it ends up through the first couple of games you’re still tweaking.”

Regardless of what those tweaks look like, the running backs will figure prominently into the success of the 2021 Gators. As the only position on the team with two former five-star recruits, they’re the deepest group on the team and perhaps the most talented.

Did you ever imagine you’d read that last sentence two years ago?

Ethan was born in Gainesville and has lived in the Starke, Florida, area his entire life. He played basketball for five years and knew he wanted to be a sportswriter when he was in middle school. He’s attended countless Gators athletic events since his early childhood, with baseball being his favorite sport to attend. He’s a proud 2019 graduate of the University of Florida and a 2017 graduate of Santa Fe College. He interned with the University Athletic Association’s communications department for 1 ½ years as a student and has spent the last two football seasons writing for InsideTheGators.com. He is a long-suffering fan of the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Tampa Bay Rays. You can follow him on Twitter @ehughes97.