Wanted: Big time running back

There is this perception out there — a perception not based on reality — that Urban Meyer’s spread option offense isn’t tailored for a running back. Any number of broadcasters and others in the media, along with a collection of fans, a few coaches and perhaps a couple of players, are of the notion that the running back position at the University of Florida is the forgotten position. Fighting that perception is often an obstacle for Meyer and his staff on the recruiting trail. All they can do is present the facts and the numbers don’t lie — a running back can indeed flourish in the Florida offense.

(See Gators vs. Volunteers running game chart below…)

The perception that the Florida offense isn’t running back friendly was fueled recently when the Gators made some changes in their coaching staff. On his way out the door to take a position on the University of Tennessee staff, former Florida running backs coach Stan Drayton stated that Florida is not a place that a good running back would want to go.

“If you’re going to be a running backs coach, you want to be part of a system that involves the running back,” Drayton told the Nashville Tennessean.

You can bet that Meyer and his staff have heard this criticism a little bit more on the recruiting trail the past few weeks. The quality of the Florida recruiting class dictates that the Gators go after an elite-level running back to fill their need but at every turn on the recruiting trail, the Gators are hearing all the negatives when they go after a running back.

Funny, but the Meyer version of the spread didn’t seem to have a problem running the ball with its tailbacks at the previous way stations Bowling Green and Utah. At Florida the constant for three years has been inconsistency at the position. Ironically, Drayton was the running backs coach during that period. I am not blaming Drayton for all the problems. I think he is a fine coach but perhaps he was an odd fit at Florida. Perhaps the Florida offensive system and Drayton’s talents are like the proverbial round peg and the square hole.

Again, the statistics speak volumes and we’ll get to them.

I find it odd that Tennessee — of all places — is where Drayton decided to put the running game on a pedestal. Here’s a fact for you — The Gators have out-rushed Tennessee every time the teams have faced since Meyer took over at Florida. In 2007, the Gators ran for a whopping 218 more yards than Tennessee.

Let’s look a little further into the stats and take it beyond the head-to-head matchups. In the last three years, the Gators have out-rushed Tennessee by a mere 1,842 yards. That’s an advantage of 614 yards per season. Imagine what that advantage might be if the Florida offense was “running back friendly.” You can insert a strong dose of sarcasm here.

Now I know what all of you are thinking: Drayton was frustrated because Florida distributes the ball in the running game to quarterbacks and wide receivers as much as the running backs. The stats would say that’s true, but maybe it shouldn’t be. All you have to do is look at Meyer’s last year at Utah where the stats on the season were strikingly similar to those at Florida in 2007.

This actually takes me back to a short conversation I had with Drayton after practice one day. It wasn’t regarding a specific recruit but the fact that one school was using the fact that Meyer has never had a thousand-yard rusher before as negative recruit speak against the Gators.

What was Drayton’s reply when I asked how you counter that?

“Oh, that is easy, I can show them seasons before (Meyer) came to Florida,” he said.

Isn’t that interesting? You want to know what’s even more interesting? The school that was using that particular negative approach against the Gators was none other than Tennessee.

Since Drayton said compare what happened before Urban Meyer came to Florida, let’s do just that, and please note that Drayton was not on the Meyer staff at Utah. He joined the Meyer staff when Meyer came to Florida in 2005.

At Utah, Meyer’s offense featured Heisman Trophy runner-up Alex Smith, a quarterback who was the first pick of the entire NFL Draft in April of 2005. In 2004, Smith threw for 2,952 yards and 32 touchdowns in 12 games. In 2007, Tim Tebow, Florida’s Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, threw for 3,286 yards and 32 touchdowns in 13 games. So neither offense lacked firepower from the quarterback.

Smith also rushed for 631 yards in 2004 while Tebow amassed 895 in 2007. Smith averaged 298 all-purpose yards a game and Tebow averaged a very similar 321 yards per game. Utah averaged 499 yards per game of total offense with 236 on the ground. Florida’s offense in 2007 averaged 457 yards per game, 200 on the ground. In Meyer’s undefeated season at Utah, the running game accounted for 47 percent of the total yardage, while this Heisman Trophy winning season at UF the running game accounted for 44 percent of the offense. Pretty darn close don’t you think?

So, what are the differences?

The backs got the ball at Utah. In 2004, the top two running backs at Utah, Marty Johnson and Quinton Ganther, racked up 274 carries and 1456 yards in the exact same offense, with a big time quarterback that could also run very effectively. In 2007, the top two running backs at Florida carried a combined 128 times for 713 yards, less than half the carries for almost half the yards.

What needs to be understood here is that the Utes weren’t All-American type running backs getting all those carries and yards. Ganther is on an NFL roster but hasn’t had a carry in his career. In the meantime, DeShawn Wynn left Florida and played a significant role early in his first season with the Green Bay Packers. Still, he was never considered an earth-mover at Florida in the 2005 and 2006 seasons.

Florida surrounds its running backs with superior talent than what was on the Utah roster. The Gators have taken advantage of the vast array of talent and they’ve distributed the ball to players that are faster and more elusive than what’s been available at the tailback position. The Gators use their wide receivers as running backs and why not? Kestahn Moore gets a most respectable 5.5 yards per carry but wide receiver Percy Harvin gets you 9.2 yards. If you need four yards, Moore might get you five or six. Harvin might get you 40 on the same play. When you have a player with Harvin’s speed, you use him wherever he gets you production. He got 764 yards of tailback production in 2007.

What the numbers at Utah clearly show is that if all the talent is equal or at least close to equal, the running backs will get a significant amount of carries in the Meyer offense. The backs at Utah carried the ball 22.8 times a game for 121.3 yards per game in 2004. Meyer has said he wants to have that kind of production from his tailbacks so what is the answer?

Since it appears that hope is waning for the Gators to land an elite caliber running back for the 2008 recruiting class, USC transfer Emmanuel Moody will have the first chance to answer the bell. Moody was the Pac-10 Freshman of the Year in 2006 and he’s known as a slashing, cutback runner capable of turning tough yards into sprints to the end zone. He left Southern Cal for private reasons (as it should be), and now has a chance to become Florida’s feature back.

Moore is back for his senior year and this would be a great time for him to establish himself as a consistent ball carrier who has no issues holding onto the ball in tough situations. He has outstanding power and can break tackles at the line of scrimmage. He’s also an outstanding blocker so he will get his opportunities to carry the football. Freshman Chris Rainey has breakaway ability and he should carry the ball a few times coming off a red-shirt year where he needed shoulder surgery. He doesn’t have the size to be an every-down tailback so he is expected to spend as much time in the slot as he does at tailback. Sophomore Mon Williams is an X-factor because he is coming back from ACL surgery. He had a 95-yard game as a freshman against Western Carolina. He was poised to become the every-down tailback in the spring before he injured the knee. If he shows no after-effects from the surgery, Florida will have a 220-pound bruiser with speed to go the distance.

All I know is if you tell Emmanuel Moody he is going to get 17 of the 23 carries a game that Meyer is looking to get from his backs the guy is going to have a smile a mile wide. If he can handle all the demands of the position, Meyer will give him the carries.

This is the reality of the Florida offense: if the tailbacks prove they get the job done, they will get the carries. Another reality is that Meyer has great athletes with great speed who can also give you a go-the-distance factor. The fact is the offense is friendly to the running game so it’s just a question of how the carries will be distributed. If the tailbacks are getting the production, they will see the ball plenty.

I’ll leave you with how there are differences between perceptions and realities.

Clemson University has a fine football program and the Tigers have one of the best 1-2 running back tandems in the nation in James Davis and C.J. Spiller. In its preseason rankings of running backs for 2007, both Davis and Spiller were listed as top ten performers. Florida had no running backs anywhere close to the top 10 listing.

Now, check the end of the year stats. With two of the best running backs in the entire nation running the ball from the backfield, Clemson ran the ball a whopping 508 times for 2,095 yards, a 4.1 yard average. You would think that with two such talented backs that Clemson would pound it every game but against Virginia Tech, the Tigers chunked it 69 times. Davis and Spiller carried the ball a combined 12 times.

The Gators — even with all the “problems” they have at running back — totaled 487 carries and 2,602 yards, a 5.3-yard average.

Is it any wonder that Spiller wanted to transfer from Clemson to Florida in what was a rather well-documented escapade in May of 2007? Clemson coach Tommy Bowden did everything but handcuff Spiller to Howard’s Rock to keep him at Clemson.

And yet, we have this perception about the Florida running game …