Running back group living up to the hype

Throughout the offseason, the Gators’ running backs were billed as perhaps the deepest position on the team. They’ve got three returning veterans whose skillsets complement each other well and a pair of former five-star recruits who shined during scrimmages.

At the halfway point of the 2021 season, it’s clear that they’ve lived up to the hype.

None of them have put up monster statistics because of the way that Dan Mullen and position coach Greg Knox rotate them, but their combined numbers are impressive: 148 carries for 815 yards (5.5 yards per carry) and 11 touchdowns. If that was one player, he’d be on track to be named First Team All-SEC and be in the mix for the Heisman Trophy right now.

Senior Dameon Pierce said that the key to making the mostly three-man rotation work is their unselfishness and love for each other.

“We actually like each other,” Pierce said. “We’re actually cool with each other. We actually have a bond. It don’t matter who’s out there. We all feel like whoever’s out there can make some plays, and we’re rooting them on the whole time and then vice versa.”

Pierce, with his smaller stature and powerful running style, has been used extensively near the goal line and in short-yardage situations. That’s allowed him to score seven touchdowns, which is tied for the third-most in the SEC. He entered this season with 10 career rushing touchdowns across three seasons.

He’s played a bit of a vulture role at times. One of the other running backs will do most of the heavy lifting to get them near the goal line, and then Pierce will come in and steal their touchdown.

“I honestly do [feel a little bad about it], and I don’t have any problem admitting that,” he said. “If I stole a touchdown, I’ll go to whoever’s touchdown I stole, be like, ‘Bro, that was you.’ I put the icing on the cake; he baked it.”

Pierce ranks second among UF’s running backs this season with 238 yards on 41 carries. He’s also emerged as a major threat in the passing game, hauling in 10 passes for 109 yards, including a 61-yard score against Vanderbilt.

“I’m just trying to make the best of my situation and try to help my team win,” he said. “I’m not perfect by a long shot, but I’m trying to make sure every time I touch the field I can be as thorough and detailed as possible.

“In the offseason, I just tried to work on what I was good at and tried to fix what I was doing bad last year – pass protection, open field, catch the ball out of the backfield, whatever it may be –and just trying to be version of me I can be.”

While Pierce is the power back, Nay’Quan Wright is the most versatile member of the group. He’s carried the ball 36 times for 184 yards and a touchdown and caught nine passes for 118 yards. Against Vanderbilt last week, he broke off a 34-yard run and hauled in a 51-yard pass in the same half.

Wright also accounted for 71 of the 99 yards during a crucial touchdown drive in the third quarter against Alabama.

“To see Nay’Quan develop from his freshman year until now, he’s got a grasp of the playbook,” Pierce said. “That’s one of the things I like about Nay’Quan. He’s very thorough. He’s very thorough with the game plan. He asks a lot of questions, and he tries to find out the best way to win on every single rep, and I love that from him. You can see that in the games.”

As good as Pierce and Wright have been, neither of them is the Gators’ leading rusher among the running backs. That distinction belongs to Malik Davis, an elusive runner who is incredibly difficult for defenders to tackle in space. He started the first five games before sitting out the Vanderbilt game with an injury. He’s expected to play against LSU this week.

Even though he’s missed a game, he still ranks 18th in the conference with 279 yards on 49 carries (5.7 yards per carry). He’s scored three times on the ground and once through the air.

Pierce said that Knox deserves credit for building a running back room that is loaded with talent, willing to buy into the idea of rotating and focused on improving at the areas of the game that don’t involve running with the ball in their hands.

“He’s not the most orthodox coach,” Pierce said. “He has his ways, but he’s definitely gotten me more detailed. I look at the game in a completely different way. I just don’t worry about what I do. I worry about what everyone else does and how that affects me, how that affects my timing on certain routes, the timing of the play, where the defense [is] going to go, how the offense [is] going to fit this certain defense.

“He’s military-like. If you’ve seen how he runs the film room, it don’t matter what grade you’re in, how old you are, he’s going to treat you like it’s your first day there, like bootcamp every day. ‘Pierce, what you’ve got on this play? What if this happens? What if this happens? What if this didn’t happen?’ It’s the process of which he teaches us. He’s kind of unorthodox, but it works, though.”

You can’t argue with the results so far.

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.