This is the second in a series of position-by-position analysis of the 2020 Florida Gators
When Dan Mullen surveys his running back room there is no shortage of talent. Questions? Well, that’s a totally different story. Mullen has five scholarship running backs, each with a different skill set but can he find a go to guy or use a committee approach that can give the Gators an improved running game from 2019 when the per game total was 129.77 yards, a dip of nearly 184 yards from 2018?
It must be noted that some of last year’s decline in the running game had to do with the inexperience of the offensive line – there were four new starters – and the wholesale shift to the passing game (300.8 yards per game as opposed to 213.5 in 2018) once Feleipe Franks went down for the season and Kyle Trask took over at quarterback. Franks put the option element into the running game because he could turn it upfield for big yards if the opening was there. Trask had some moments when he showed he could run the ball, but usually when he ran it had to be for one of two reasons – sheer desperation or the element of surprise. Mullen reconfigured the offense to play to Trask’s strengths and the result was Florida’s best passing game since the Spurrier years.
Three receivers Trask threw to last year should be picking up an NFL paycheck in the fall and a fourth has an excellent chance to make a roster. There are talented receivers coming back, but there might be less emphasis on the passing game and more on running the football if the O-line improves as much as expected and Mullen can find answers in the running backs room.
Improvement in the running game should be expected if nothing more because there are four starters returning on the offensive line along with the addition of grad transfer Stewart Reese (6-5, 350), who started 34 games in his career at Mississippi State. When John Hevesy-coached O-lines have been at their best, there is great size and strength in the middle. Few O-lines anywhere in the country will have more size in the middle than the Gators with Brett Heggie (6-4, 330, RSR) at center and Ethan White (6-5, 360) and Reese at the guards.
It stands to reason that better blocking up front should equate to more rushing yards, but that’s where things get a little bit tricky because Mullen doesn’t have one proven back who can do all the things Lamical Perine could do. Perine was the perfect back because he could get the tough yards to grind out first downs, could go the distance (see Auburn and Virginia) if he got a step, wasn’t afraid to stick his hat in the chest of a blitzing edge rusher and was such a good pass catcher that Mullen didn’t hesitate to split him out like a wide receiver. Mullen has five talented guys but none of them has done what Perine did.
Of the returning backs, the one who has stayed healthy the last two years and who knows the Mullen offense inside-out is Dameon Pierce, but in two seasons he has only carried the ball 123 times (for 729 yards) and caught only nine passes for 50 yards. He showed against South Carolina when he broke away for an 75-yard touchdown that he is a nice combination of power and speed, but can he handle 15-20 carries a game? Can he be a threat for something other than a dump-off safety valve type of pass? And, perhaps as important as anything, can Trask depend on Pierce to pick up a corner or linebacker coming on the blitz?
Before he suffered a season-ending injury as a freshman in 2017, Malik Davis had the look of a game-changer. In seven games he averaged 6.66 yards per carry (526 yards) and showed promise as a receiver (7-58). He got in three games in 2018 before he went down with a knee injury and spent last year trying to get his edge back. If he’s healthy again and hasn’t lost any of the speed he showed as a freshman, Davis has a make-you-miss quality that allows him to get to the second level and beyond. But, can he stay healthy? Has he regained his speed? Can he protect Trask?
Iverson Clement is in his third year in the program and he still hasn’t made a mark. He played in two games as a redshirt freshman in 2018 and then played in six last year, mostly on special teams. As a freshman he spent some time at safety when injuries piled up, so there is always that possibility that Clement could shift over to that side of the ball again. Before spring practice was postponed it was thought this would be a make-or-break for Clement but he’s still with the program. From the few times he’s carried the ball in two years (6-65 overall, 3-48 last year), there is no question he has some speed and elusiveness but what has held him back? Is it his receiving skills? Blocking skills? Or has he just not made enough progress to move past some of the other backs in the room?
NayQuan Wright played in only three games last season so he took a redshirt. Coming out of Miami Carol City, he was an elusive runner with breakaway speed and was thought to be a potential hybrid type who could be as comfortable in the slot as he was running the ball. He’s healthy and strong, but is he ready to earn a place in the regular rotation or is he going to have to spend more time on special teams this year?
That brings us to the X-factor and what an X-factor Lorenzo Lingard is. A former 5-star running back out of Orange City, Lingard transferred in from Miami where he was the prize of the 2018 recruiting class and has gotten his waiver from the NCAA that will allow him to play this fall. Lingard was coming on strong at UM as a freshman (17-136, 2 TDs) when he went down with a knee injury. He spent all of 2019 recovering and took a redshirt. Coming out of high school and prior to the injury in 2018, Lingard was considered one of those lightning in a bottle types, capable of turning a routine play into go the distance. From all reports prior to the shutdown due to Covid-19, Lingard was showing off the kind of speed that should translate into game-breaker and he had added plenty of muscle to his frame.
Mullen didn’t get to see Lingard in the spring, but he saw enough during pre-spring workouts to make him believe he will have a significant contributor in the fall.
“I'm really excited about that because he has really positive energy, he has a great attitude and a great work ethic,” Mullen said on a recent Zoom press conference. “So I think all of those are really bright for his future, and I'm really happy he's a part of the program."
Still, there are questions. Whereas if he’s healthy, Lingard should see the field a lot if not as the starter, but he hasn’t played much in two years so how long before he shakes off the rust? Can he catch the football? Can he block someone effectively? If the answers to those questions are all positive, then Mullen might have an every-down home run threat on his hands, something he really hasn’t had since he came to UF.
THE SCHOLARSHIP RUNNING BACKS
Malik Davis (5-11, 195, RJR)
Dameon Pierce (5-10, 207, JR) Iverson Clement (5-11, 193, RSO)
Lorenzo Lingard (6-0, 200, RSO)
NayQuan Wright (5-9, 195, RFR)
ASSESSING THE POSITION: From top to bottom, there is no question this is the most talented running back room of the Mullen era at Florida and the added experience on the offensive line lends itself to serious optimism. But, with the optimism are the numerous questions that will have to be answered.
Because he’s had two productive seasons in the offense, Pierce should get every opportunity to be Florida’s lead back, but Mullen does like having fresh legs in the game early on so that he can grind with the running game in the fourth quarter. Fresh legs mean at least one other back will have to step forward to form a 1-2 punch.
In 2018, Mullen had a 1-2-3 punch in Jordan Scarlett (826 yards), Perine (776) and Pierce (424). A 1-2 of Pierce and Lingard would be outstanding for the Gators but if one of the other three backs can earn his way onto the field, then Mullen should have a running game effective enough to make the passing game he has with Trask even more dangerous. If Malik Davis is healthy and has regained his speed, it would give the Gators the kind of 1-2-3 they had back in 2018.
All signs point to a much-improved running game in 2020. The line should be vastly improved, four of the five scholarship backs are in at least their second season with the program and then there is Lorenzo Lingard, truly an X-factor who could blow up in a positive way if he’s back to 100% healthy. Talent won’t be a factor but there are questions that have to be answered. If Dan Mullen has answers, Florida should have the best offense it has had since 2009.