GAINESVILLE, Fla. — During his weekly appearance on “Gator Talk” on Thursday night at Piesanos Pints & Pies, Florida coach Jim McElwain was asked what has become a popular question these days.
How do the Gators determine the rotation for their four-headed running back committee?
“We have a rotation set,” he said. “All of those guys have certain traits, and yet you can’t be predictable when they’re in there. I’ve been really pleased, especially with their pass protection. I think all four of them are doing an outstanding job that way.”
McElwain then turned the tables and asked the same question to Florida running backs coach Tim Skipper when he joined the live radio show later in the hour.
“Obviously one thing that people, I think, want to know is rotation-wise, how do we kind of come up with that?” McElwain asked Skipper. “You know what, I’m tired of telling them it’s whoever can run the fastest.”
Skipper didn’t quite reveal the formula either, but he addressed it in his own way.
“Coach Mac and Coach Nuss (offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier), they do a good job with the first eight to 10 plays, kind of having it scripted already and we kind of know who’s going to be in from there,” Skipper said. “Within the group, the guys know whoever gets hot they’re going to stay in there and keep going. So we have an inner competition that way. The easy (part) for me is the guys can all do it all. … So whoever gets hot is going to stay out there. If somebody breaks a run, they’re not going to come out. They’re going to stay right out there.”
After ranking 112th nationally last season in rushing at 126.9 yards per game, Florida is up to 51st so far this season with 202 yards per game on the ground. That has come with a solid 4.97 yards-per-carry average.
After gaining just 107 rushing yards in their all-around lackluster season opener, though, the Gators are averaging 249.5 yards on the ground over the last two games.
That’s not the stat McElwain is proudest of, though.
“You know what’s great is our production at the running back spot in the fourth quarter, we’re actually averaging like 5.7 yards a rush,” he said Thursday night. “And a lot of that has to do with those guys are fresh and you start wearing on them a little bit.”
Sophomore Jordan Scarlett leads the committee with 175 rushing yards and 2 touchdowns on 33 attempts (5.3 yards per carry), junior Mark Thompson has 166 yards and 2 touchdowns on 32 attempts (5.2), true freshman Lamical Perine has 161 yards and a touchdown on 29 carries (5.6) and sophomore Jordan Cronkrite is up to 80 yards and 1 touchdown on 17 totes.
And it was Cronkrite who McElwain seemed most pleased with from last weekend.
“He probably graded out the best of any of them,” he said.
The Gators have been committed the committee approach at running back all season and it’s clearly paying dividends.
McElwain also gave credit to Skipper, who he worked with at Fresno State and, as he said Thursday, brought along as his first hire at both Colorado State and now Florida. He highlighted that Skipper had experience earlier in his career as a defensive coordinator (at Western New Mexico, Sacramento State and on an interim basis at Fresno State), while noting that adds to what he teaches the Gators’ ball carriers now.
“The one thing he does is bring from a different perspective what the defense is trying to do to you. I don’t think sometimes guys get that value,” McElwain said.
He then asked Skipper to share with the audience his career path, which the assistant coach noted began by being “thrown into the fire” as a defensive backs coach at Western New Mexico in 2001 when he “didn’t know anything.”
Now, though, he pulls from those experiences in teaching his Florida running backs.
“It’s valuable to me that I was able to be on offense and defense because you can see the game in a totally different way, just helping our guys see linebacker stances and alignments and safety rotations — all the things you take for granted,” Skipper said.
“On defense the defenders are always looking at the running back’s alignment and his eyes. If you’re staring at something, they know you’re going that direction. So with my guys, I try to tell them, ‘Look, you’re always scanning the entire field, run or pass. Don’t give away anything.’ And then just if you’re even with the quarterback or deeper, all those little things tell the defense something, so we try to do everything out of the same alignment so (the defense) never gets a key and we’re always scanning our heads.”
So far, so good for the No. 19 Gators’ ground attack, but the challenge amplifies moving forward, starting Saturday at No. 14 Tennessee.
“We talk all the time, we’re trying to get better and better every day and honestly we never talk about stats,” Skipper said. “… Were trying to just execute and get better every single time we play somebody.”