GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The comments from coaches and players all preseason have made it clear that the Florida Gators are headed for a true committee approach at running back this fall.
Head coach Jim McElwain talked around a question Monday about whether any of those rushers had created any separation in the team’s first scrimmage last Friday. If anything, he seemed to indicate there’s possibly another legitimate candidate for carries while offering strong praise for true freshman Lamical Perine in addition to the usual cast of characters.
But more than anything, he delivered a message that the running backs need to embrace the benefits of such an arrangement while referencing his time as Alabama’s offensive coordinator from 2008-11.
“I think we had one backfield at one of the places I was at where we had … Eddie Lacy was our fourth-teamer and this guy was a pretty good player. And we found carries for him,” McElwain said. “Here’s the one thing at running back that these guys have got to realize, too — sometimes they get all these people in their ear, ‘You should be toting it 35 times,’ and yet we all know the position’s (about) staying fresh and you only have so many hits in you. So your ability to spread it around is something that’s only going to help you in the long run.
“Now it’s hard sometimes for guys to see that and yet the great ones do. We had a Heisman Trophy winner with a runner-up in behind him and actually another guy there and then Eddie. All of them are playing in the league at some point and yet there was enough to go around. That’s going to be the hard thing there. You’re going to find out about their make-up a little bit too when it comes to that.”
It was the 2010 Alabama team that McElwain was referencing, when reigning Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram and fellow future first-round draft pick Trent Richardson were ahead of Lacy (a future second-round pick of the Green Bay Packers) in that vaunted Crimson Tide backfield.
Ingram rushed for 875 yards and 13 touchdowns, Richardson tallied 700 yards on the ground and 10 combined rushing and receiving touchdowns and Lacy racked up 406 yards on just 56 carries.
As for these Gators, after having Kelvin Taylor reach 259 carries last season — the second-highest single-season total in program history — the offense will turn to some combination of sophomores Jordan Cronkrite and Jordan Scarlett, junior college transfer Mark Thompson and possibly fifth-year senior Mark Herndon and Perine.
Cronkrite has the most “experience” after totaling 44 carries for 157 yards and three touchdowns last season along with six catches for 89 yards and a score. Scarlett, meanwhile, got 34 carries for 181 yards and a touchdown.
Thompson is an intriguing newcomer at 6-foot-2, 242 pounds. He was ranked fourth in the NJCAA with 1,298 rushing yards last season. He also brings considerable confidence and seemed to impress McElwain in the scrimmage Friday.
“Jordan Cronkrite, consistency in being an every-down back is something that, you know, has showed up a little bit, that I’ve been real happy with,” McElwain said of his impressions from the scrimmage. “I thought Jordan Scarlett made some real explosive runs. You know, Mark (Thompson) … this guy can really catch the ball too. He does, he gives you some versatility. Mark Herndon, who obviously played on every special teams as well as in some specialty packages, and this Lamical Perine guy. He’s gotten pretty good.”
Perine joins the Gators after rushing for 1,654 yards and 15 touchdowns at Theodore (Ala.) High School last year. He was a 3-star recruit according to the composite rankings from 247sports.com and is a player to watch — if not in an extensive role this season, then for the future.
“This guy, you know I thought he was good obviously, but as I’ve said, I feel really good about that running back room,” McElwain said. “We’ve got some really good players, which, formationally tells you to get your guys on the field you’ve got to do some things from some personnel groups to get maybe multiple guys on the field at one time.”
It will be interesting to see how that workload gets divvied up once the games start — and interesting for McElwain to see how the running backs embrace the roles they’re ultimately given.
“These guys, a lot of them have a lot of external noise in their ears from people and I just feel horrible for them,” he added. “And yet they’ve all bonded together and done a great job so for and we’ll see what happens. … Time will tell and it will also tell probably about the make-up a little bit when it comes to that.”
Ryan Young is a Florida beat writer for SEC Country and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.