GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida lost a tailback who tallied the second-most single-season rushing attempts in program history. It returns nobody with more than 44 career carries at this level.
But head coach Jim McElwain doesn’t see any of that as a problem for the Gators.
Actually, he sees it as just the opposite.
“I really see our running back position being as strong as anything on our football team,” McElwain said at the start of preseason camp. “We’ve got some really quality guys there … that will compete, and I’m looking forward to (seeing) how that competition kind of comes out.”
Kelvin Taylor, now with the San Fransisco 49ers, led the Gators last season with 1,035 rushing yards — eighth in the SEC — and 13 touchdowns on 259 attempts. Only Emmitt Smith has ever racked up more carries in a season at Florida.
If all goes as the coaches plan, though, no individual will approach that workload in 2016.
Between sophomores Jordan Cronkrite (44 carries for 157 yards and 3 touchdowns last season) and Jordan Scarlett (34-181-1), intriguing junior college transfer Mark Thompson (268-1,298-18 at Dodge City Community College in Kansas last year), promising freshman Lamical Perine and fifth-year senior Mark Herndon, the Gators feel they will be able to lean more on their depth in the ground attack this fall.
“I hope to be able to have a little more balance. I think that’s important. I think being able to stay fresh at the end of the game (also has) been successful for us where we’ve been,” McElwain said. “I think if you look historically, when you’ve got multiple people back there, it actually gives a change to the defense, and I think you’re better.”
In the SEC, a team needs “interchangeable parts” at running back, offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier said, adding that he’s “excited about that group and the depth.”
Scarlett (from Fort Lauderdale) and Cronkrite (Miami) were four-star recruits in the class of 2015 and rated among the top 35 overall players in the state of Florida, according to the 247Sports.com composite rankings.
Scarlett got into 10 games last season and made his first career start against Vanderbilt, but he made his biggest impact in a 27-3 win against Georgia, rushing for 96 yards on 9 attempts (including a 60-yard run).
Cronkrite played in 13 games with one start. His best games came in Week 2 against East Carolina, when he rushed for 47 yards on 9 carries, and later in the season against South Carolina, when he rushed for 24 yards and a touchdown and caught two passes for 49 yards and another score.
While the two Jordans came in together as touted prospects from the same part of the state and are competing for touches in a crowded backfield, Scarlett downplayed the notion of a rivalry between them.
“Not really much a rivalry. We were roommates when we first got here and for a long time, so we actually bonded together and became like brothers almost,” Scarlett said Thursday. “So we look out for each other’s back like we’re really brothers.”
Said Cronkrite: “We’re very competitive. It started in high school, now here. We just push each other. There’s no animosity between both of us. We just push each other. We’re a family.”
They are perhaps the most-known commodities in the competition, but that’s not saying much considering the overall lack of SEC experience across the position group.
“With the two Jordans, I think it’s building on the little bit of success that they had a year ago and the understanding of probably the daily kind of pounding and your ability to move on to the next play, is something that is going to be big,” McElwain said.
“I think you could see us use more pony personnel, some more two-back, three-wides, that kind of stuff in some of the things we’re doing because of the versatility that some of those guys bring, including Mark Herndon and Mark Thompson.”
Thompson, who was named a second-team NJCAA All-American and rushed for the fourth-most yards in the NJCAA ranks last season, is especially intriguing.
And he didn’t choose Florida so he could be a sideline spectator. He exudes as much confidence as any of the competitors for carries and has expressed a rather optimistic goal of reaching 1,000 yards through the first seven games leading into the bye week.
“It’s realistic definitely for sure, if I’m doing the right thing, coming to practice working, coming to the games working harder, then yeah, it’s realistic,” Thompson said Thursday. “But in the grand scheme of things, if we all share the ball that’s cool too.”
Listed at 6-foot-2 and 242 pounds, Thompson gives the Gators a distinctly different look from the 5-foot-10 Scarlett and 5-11 Cronkrite.
“We’re all fast. We all can catch the ball. We all can make moves in the open field and we can also run through defenders, so we’re all pretty much the same,” Thompson said. “I’m just a little heavier than them and a little taller. Besides that, we’re all pretty much the same — we’re all ballers.”
Herndon is easy to overlook in that mix given that he’s totaled just 11 rushing attempts over his four seasons at Florida so far, but Nussmeier said the redshirt-senior has a lot more to offer now that he’s had a full year back from the torn ACL that derailed his 2014 campaign.
And Perine is a promising newcomer after rushing for 1,654 yards and 15 touchdowns at Theodore (Ala.) High School last year.
“It’s really intense because it’s a great set of backs and day in and day out we’ve got great runs coming from each other,” Scarlett said. “The advantage we have is we’re in the SEC and, you know, not just one running back can take all that load, so whenever one of us get tired or injured we have the next man up who can do the same thing or even better. And I think the (downside) is it’s only one ball, so four people can’t get to one ball. So hey, it’s the best man wins.”
The Gators will hold their first preseason scrimmage Friday — closed to the media and public — and the hierarchy within that running back group may look a little different afterward.
“It’s decision week,” Thompson said. “We’re setting a standard. I think this scrimmage, you’re going to see a lot of people step up, you’re going to see a lot of people probably not step up, but that’s the way football is. We’re going to find out who wants to play, who has the ability to play, and we’re going to put it on the field, put it on film.”
Ryan Young is a Florida beat writer for SEC Country and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.