Lamical Perine gave a hint back in July that this was going to happen.
“I always knew in the back of my head I could receive out of the backfield,” he said at the time.
He tried to tell us again during fall camp.
“During game schemes and things like that, Coach Mullen will have me out there every once in a while, just to show my attributes and things I can do outside of just running the ball. He’s definitely making it effective for me.”
Just in case the message wasn’t getting across, running backs coach Greg Knox spent time during camp as well to give a glimpse into the offensive plan coming for the season.
“[Lamical is] different because his skill set as far as catching the ball, it totally different. He can play like a receiver because he can catch the ball out in space. That’s a mismatch for ‘backers.”
There’s a belief that to win—especially in the SEC—you have to be able to run the ball. Sandra Bullock even put a perfect cadence to football fans favorite plea. “Run the ‘dang’ ball” we like to yell at the sidelines. So to be fair, we couldn’t have imagined a season such as this; one that would essentially dispense of the run game and put the majority of attention in the air.
Yet during a season that boasts one of the deepest receiving corps in college football while working around a green offensive line, the No. 11 Florida Gators (9-2) have essentially motioned their leading running back out of the backfield and done just that. And after years of watching teams in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium insist on pounding against lines that weren’t bending, bouncing back over and over akin to someone pounding their head against in brick wall in hopes it will fall over, the change of pace has been an unlikely positive with the 2019 Gators.
While it’s understandably worrisome—at least on paper—that the Gators have been unable to run the ball with any sort of consistency (Florida has three rushing plays of 75+ yards however) quarterback Kyle Trask thinks the atypical offense is a testament to head coach Dan Mullen.
“Coach Mullen, to me, is one of the most brilliant minds in the game of college football. He’s done a great job. He’s always going to play to our strengths. Obviously, if one things not working, you can’t just stick with that. He’s done a great job making stuff that’s going to make us play more efficiently and get guys in good matchups and let our athletes make plays on the ball.”
In Mullen’s first season in Gainesville, the rushing attack averaged 213.2 yards per game, with five guys—Lamical Perine, Jordan Scarlett, Dameon Pierce, Feleipe Franks and Kadarius Toney—averaging 20+ yards per game. During the Gators last four games, the ground game averaged 200+ yards a game with three of those four ticking over 250. This came behind an offensive line comprised of all upperclassmen who had found a greater chemistry as the season progressed.
When the 2019 season was approaching, Mullen and unit coach John Hevesy both hedged their expectations for the offensive line that was returning one starter and would be piecemealing itself together with freshman and sophomores. Mullen even said he would be ok with bringing in a grad transfer for the unit. The Gators were unable to bring in any such transfer.
In the first match of the season, Florida defeated Miami but only rushed for 50 yards. The next game against UT-Martin saw the Gators put up 231 rushing yards on the FCS team. But when the SEC schedule began the following week against Kentucky, UF put up 138 yards on the ground and hasn’t broken 200 since. Against Georgia (21) and Missouri (56), the Gators stayed below 60 yards. It should also be noted that as recent as two weeks ago, Mullen and Hevesy were still checking out new lineups for the trenches.
Taking advantage of the receiving corps, the receiving ability of his receivers and a pocket passer with noted accuracy, Mullen has redefined the offense game plan to highlight his personnel as opposed to a ingrained adherence to a rushing identity.
“He’s been very creative,” points out receiver Van Jefferson.
“[Kadarius Toney], for example, he finds KT the ball all the time, gets him in space so he can do the things that he does. He just puts people in different positions to get the ball. He’ll put Tre Grimes in the slot and Tre Grimes will do like an inside fade going up against the linebacker, just different things to get the matchups. He does a great job of getting his playmakers involved. We just have to go out there and make the play.”
“The leadership,” adds receiver Josh Hammond.
“Guys understand what we’ve been able to excel at. We’ve been able to put ourselves in a position to be successful at the things we can excel at. We’ve been able to throw the ball all over people this year. Coach Mullen has done a good job of putting people in position to make plays, getting the matchups that we want, and just trying to be successful and put points on the board.”
They have in fact been able to “throw the ball all over people this year.” Mullen’s crew is averaging 292.27 yards through the air so far this season with nine different receivers averaging double digit yards per game. This is up 78 yards from last season. The lowest outing of the season was 200 yards against South Carolina, which came in a tropical storm.
For comparison, during Steve Spurrier’s 12 years as Florida Gators head coach, the “Fun-and-Gun” offense that turned the SEC trenches league on its head averaged 140.3 rushing yards over 12 years. Through the air, Spurrier’s teams averaged 319.26 yards. Granted the best rushing seasons under Spurrier (173.6 and 170) where when the Gators finished 2nd (1995) and 1st (1996) in the polls respectively.
Thanks to the advent of the spread offense in college football, the greater emphasis on the passing game isn’t uncommon. The Gators are 22nd in the country in passing offense currently. But it is still a strange sight in the SEC where only two other teams rank higher than the Gators; LSU at two and Alabama at three. And it’s an even stranger sight to see how the Gators have accomplished this feat.
This brings us back to Lamical Perine’s offseason statements and the Gators receiving corps wanting to make the running back an honorary receiver.
“He catches the ball very well. He’s always over there catching with us sometimes, you know. He’s been working on it all summer. I think he’s just showing it in games now,” says Jefferson.
“He’s very versatile we can put him all kinds of different spots. He’s not afraid to go up and make a big-time play when he has to. He’s been big for us this year,” adds Hammond.
With two games to go (FSU and a bowl game) Perine already has nine yards and three touchdowns more than his output last season through the air. He currently sits at 179 receiving yards, four touchdowns and is averaging 5.6 yards per reception. As Mullen points out, it’s setting the senior up for a good chance at the next level.
“I think he gets lost, the year he’s having catching the ball and the matchups and the problems he causes coming out the backfield. We run a pro-style offense and if you look at it and you look and say ‘hey’ and I think that’s one of the things that he’s understood and really benefited is ‘hey I’m running the offense that’s gonna be really similar to what I might be doing next year when I get the opportunity to go play in the NFL. Catching balls and doing this and hey I’ll get some carries here and there, gotta take advantage of my carries. But I gotta be a three down, all purpose back to be able to do everything. Gotta be able to catch, protect, run, do it all.’ And he’s done that.”
Lamical Perine tried to tell us this summer this would happen. He gave us hints about how his game had changed and as such this offense as a whole.
You’re not supposed to be able to win without a run game. But the Florida Gators have figured out a way to do just that.