Through three games in 2019, the No. 9 Florida Gators run game has been three yards and a cloud of dust.
With a running back unit that boast senior Lamical Perine, redshirt sophomore Malik Davis and sophomore Dameon Pierce, there was a perception coming into the season that this would be a strength for the offense. The Gators averaged 213.2 rushing yards per game last season with a combination of the running backs and quarterback Feleipe Franks. Thus far this season, that number has floated instead around 139.7 per game.
It’s easy to look at Perine and ask what happened? It’s understandable that the question is asked, why not use Pierce and his wide frame more?
These are cop outs.
Just ask head coach Dan Mullen.
“We got a young O-line and as things change, especially see people are gonna load the line of scrimmage with different looks, they’ve gotta get used to doing that and making those blocks…but you know I think for [Perine], he’s running the ball, I haven’t had many negatives. He’s graded out just about every week.”
And just ask the offensive line.
“Looking back at film we’re one block away from a big play,” explains left guard Brett Heggie.
“It’s frustrating to see, but really just moving on and get it right for this game we’re playing against Tennessee and again just focusing on the small things. We’re close to breaking big plays and we just have to put it all together.
“It’s just something we have to take mentally, come out every single day and work on it…we were one block here, one block there, myself included, from making big plays. We just gotta put it all together and we’ll make big plays.”
“They gotta be able to communicate better up front to do that. It's not that anybody got physically beat. It's a communication error,” explains line coach John Hevesy.
The offensive line does get some lee-way here after losing four starters from the 2018 unit. With only center Nick Buchanan the only returner, Hevesy and head coach Dan Mullen were tasked with pulling from within their unit to cobble together a starting five. Heggie had previous starting experience which helped. But Mullen admitted after spring practice that they were looking for more.
“Not that I don’t like our young players and where they’re coming in their development, but when you’re looking at all these guys we’d love to get a grad transfer come in and add somebody that can come in and we’d feel comfortable that has that experience and can come in and play immediately for us.”
That didn’t happen.
It should be noted that the offensive line in 2018, even with more experience, did start off struggling as well. And the unit’s pass protection through three games so far this year has been phenomenal. But there’s an aspect to the game missing and it’s clearly in the run blocking. Blame does has to be shared with tight ends here as well. As Buchanan explains, some of that is also the incredible talent faced in two of the first three games; Miami Hurricanes and Kentucky Wildcats.
“Kentucky is a good team. It’s an SEC team. They’ve got guys up front, we’ve got guys up front. Sometimes that’s how it is in the running game, you’ve got to keep pounding and pounding and pounding until you break one. That’s just how it is. Some games you’re going to run for 1,000 yards, some games you’re going to pass for 1,000 yards. Whatever it takes to win, we want to do it.”
Adds Hevesy, “[Kentucky] came out a little different. They played a lot more four-down than we thought, but to me it's how fast can we adjust to it. And then for us, in the first half we just gotta take care of the ball better.
“The biggest for us is just the game situations. Going back to the first half, the Miami game and the Kentucky game we didn’t have a whole lot of possessions in the first half. A) because of turnovers, which is killing us along the way is getting turnovers and getting possessions to be able to run the ball. Then last week being down 21-10, you’re going, how much time can we spend running the ball. But to me we got to be able to, A) hold onto the ball and be able to be effective early to put that part of the game.”
Within the running back room, Dameon Pierce says guys are just staying focused on what they can do on their part to be ready for that big play Heggie referenced.
“We all gotta stay within our system, stay within our play calls and just execute at a high level. It’s not the fact that they can’t do it, it’s the fact that we making little mistakes and we’d rather fix the little mistakes than the big mistakes so we go in to film every day, we coaching them guys up and we’re gonna get better.”
As the game progressed against Kentucky, the run blocking built steam. The blocks laid—especially by tight ends Lucas Krull and Kyle Pitts—on Josh Hammond's 76-yard jet sweep were crucial.
Hevesy is doing extra coaching as well. Monday’s practice went 40 minutes over, for the entire team. On Tuesday, the position coach was seen staying back with several starters, walking them through certain blocks and situations. And when looking back at the Miami and Kentucky game—especially the aforementioned miscommunication he pinpointed as an issue—Hevesy feels everything is fixable.
"The greatest thing is it's correctable. We just gotta do a better job, especially in a situation when they're moving in and out of things. It will be no different this week. We're home, so it's a little easier. But to me, it's constant communication of five guys. I've said before if we're all wrong, we're right. And to me, we were wrong. Protection wise, five guys was right and one guy was wrong. But that to me is not his fault, it's everyone's fault for not communication."
While the run blocking continues to develop, Mullen and the offensive coordinators are taking advantage of the pass protection the unit has cultivated and what defenses are letting them throw. This means that Perine, instead of having to watch his senior season start with little production as the blocking comes together, is working on another part of his game that will translate at the next level.
“We’re getting him the ball on the pass game as well. And I think that’s a big part to it. I think he knew, especially one of the things was, he made a really smart decision to come back for his senior year and to work on certain things and I think to highlight certain things and one of those—to me—was gonna be his ability in the pass game which translates a lot at the next level.”
Perine is currently tied with Van Jefferson for a team high 12 receptions. He has 63 yards and a touchdown through the air. He’s also the leading rusher with 34 touches for 120 yards and two touchdowns on the ground. Both of those things could grow according to Mullen, as this Florida Gators offense—and whatever state of run blocking appears each week—creates its 2019 identity.
“Obviously I’d like to run the ball better. I love running the ball, a little bit better than we’ve run it. But we’ve also thrown it pretty darn well this year. And so if teams are gonna try to make sure the run’s taken away, I mean I’m not gonna just sit there and keep slamming my head in the wall; we’re gonna, we’ll go and throw it and he’ll get touches in the pass game.”