GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The clamoring started early this fall as fans soured on Florida’s running back by committee approach and wondered why sophomore Jordan Scarlett wasn’t getting more carries.
It wasn’t just fans, for that matter.
Reporters repeatedly asked coach Jim McElwain about the shared backfield, about pulling out a hot running back for the sake of the rotation, and time and again about Scarlett’s potential to be a featured back.
It finally happened over the second half of the season and Scarlett reciprocated. During one stretch he had at least 93 rushing yards in four out of five games.
Like everything with the Gators’ offense, the rushing attack wasn’t consistent. With the offensive line’s up-and-down play and falling behind big against Arkansas, Florida State and Alabama, the ground game struggled.
But Scarlett nonetheless emerged in 2016 and should be positioned as a focal point of the offense in 2017.
He earned that after rushing for 795 yards and 6 touchdowns on 4.8 yards per carry in a breakout sophomore season. His yards-per-attempt was dinged by Alabama’s stifling defense in the SEC Championship Game, in which Scarlett had 17 yards on 11 carries, but he will look to boost those numbers in the Outback Bowl against Iowa on Jan. 2.
“I’m pretty satisfied but I know I can do a lot better. And I’ll (be) looking to show that this game and for the continued years I’m here,” Scarlett said last week.
As for that four-man running back committee? Well, fellow sophomore Jordan Cronkrite is transferring out of the program after falling to fourth in the pecking order for touches. Junior college transfer Mark Thompson fell short of the considerable hype he brought and saw his role diminish the second half of the season after struggling on and off the field.
So that leaves Scarlett and Lamical Perine, who produced some memorable moments as a true freshman while rushing for 402 yards and a touchdown.
That’s a solid foundation, especially if the Gators better use their strongest assets.
After showing great vision and an ability to create yards after contact, Scarlett deserves every opportunity in 2017 to prove he can be a bell cow for this offense.
“That’s what I’m hoping for,” he said.
Scarlett and Perine were bright spots, but the Gators were expecting a lot more from Thompson, who heads into the bowl game with just 295 rushing yards and 2 touchdowns. After an off-the-field issue before the Georgia game and ball-control concerns, he made nine carries over Florida’s final six games.
Florida needed to lean on its ground game and at times that worked really well (244 rushing yards against Kentucky, 255 against North Texas, 287 against Missouri, 171 against South Carolina). But other times it didn’t work so well as the Gators lost the battle at the line of scrimmage (12 rushing yards against Arkansas, 58 against Florida State, 0 against Alabama).
Again, that’s not totally on the running backs. When there are no rushing lanes and minimal push up front, it’s hard to get out of the backfield.
Still, the emergence of Scarlett and potential of Perine should have the Gators encouraged about this position heading into next season.
Star of the group: Jordan Scarlett
In assessing Scarlett’s season, the traditional stats don’t even tell the whole story. He had a number of wow moments in which he got more out of a play than seemed to be there.
The advanced stats back this up as Pro Football Focus credited Scarlett with 48 missed tackles (most in the SEC/16th nationally) and had 588 of his rushing yards coming after contact. That accounted for 74 percent of his total rushing yards, which tied him with Georgia’s Nick Chubb for the highest percentage in that category.
He especially asserted himself during that stretch of six games starting with the Oct. 15 win against Missouri, in which he ran for 101 yards on 12 carries. He followed that up with 93 yards and a touchdown on a season-high 26 carries against Georgia. After the offense tanked in general at Arkansas, Scarlett got back on track with big games against South Carolina (20 carries for 134 yards) and LSU (22-108).
That’s proof enough he can handle the lead back role just fine.
Looking at 2017
While any hopes for progress the offense rest on improving the line and finding an answer at quarterback, the Gators are set up well with playmakers at both receiver and running back.
Along with Scarlett, Perine should be a nice complementary option. He did most of his damage the first half of the season, capitalizing on opportunities late in lopsided wins. That included two 100-yard games, against Kentucky (105) and Missouri (106). He also had a tremendous 22-yard run in that big win over LSU, carrying a host of tacklers in a relentless push inside the 5-yard line to set up a key field goal.
How many LSU players does it take to tackle Lamical Perine? https://t.co/D6ZWl2MpPo
— Kevin McGuire (@KevinOnCFB) November 19, 2016
Only the coaches know how they view Thompson heading into next season, but even if he is relegated to a minimal role, the Gators will have options.
Malik Davis, a 3-star recruit from Tampa, Fla., is committed. Promising 3-star running back Adarius Lemons from Clearwater, Fla., remains a potential addition for Florida as well.
All recruiting rankings come from the 247Sports Composite.
Here’s the schedule for the rest of our position-by-position review with a link to the earlier installments.
Dec. 12: Special teams
Dec. 13: Cornerbacks
Dec. 14: Safeties
Dec. 15: Linebackers
Dec. 16: Defensive line
Dec. 19: Offensive line
Dec. 20: Tight ends
Dec. 21: Wide receivers
Dec. 22: Running backs
Dec. 23: Quarterbacks