GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Mark Thompson, the junior college transfer looking to carve out a role in Florida’s crowded backfield, was asked Thursday if there has been any culture shock for him coming from Dodge City Community College in Kansas to an SEC program.
“My biggest culture shock was going to Kansas,” he countered. “That was by far the biggest culture shock. Coming here, not as much, but going from a city to flat land 50 miles every way — big culture shock. Cowboys, the biggest mall is probably the size of one of the dorms out here — big culture shock.”
So yes, he feels he’s adjusting just fine at Florida.
While the media has been limited to a few portions of open practice so far in preseason camp, Thompson has made an impression nonetheless with his confidence. He said he has a goal of rushing for 1,000 yards through the Gators’ first seven games leading into the bye week.
That would be an ambitious goal for any running back, but it is especially so in Thompson’s situation considering the Florida coaches are hoping to employ a balanced rushing attack this season.
A little confidence can’t hurt, though.
“We don’t really talk about anything like that,” Thompson said of how his teammates have responded to that goal. “It’s my goal so, you know, I think about it — not much, but that’s what I want to do. Goals are meant to be achieved, so I set a goal for myself.”
Thompson’s confidence is buoyed by his production last season when he ranked fourth in the NJCAA ranks with 1,298 rushing yards on 268 carries while scoring 18 touchdowns (tied for third in the NJCAA).
He played his high school football in Pennsylvania and said he was considering a few schools in deciding where to transfer last offseason, but Florida coach Jim McElwain made the strongest impression on him.
“I was down to probably three or four schools, but then Coach Mac gave me a phone call and talked about some deep things and I felt more of a connection with him than the other coaches and people who were reaching out to me,” Thompson said. “Just (about) being a man, things outside of football, things about football too. But I could tell he was sincere in what he was talking about and that really stuck out a lot.”
Listed at 6-foot-2, 242 pounds, Thompson is by far the biggest of Florida’s running backs, providing a different look than the other options in the backfield. He said some schools recruiting him out of high school wanted to convert him to a linebacker, but running back is the position that feels natural to him.
Going through spring practice with the Gators he had some trouble holding onto the football, but said he used the last few months leading up to preseason camp to make sure that wouldn’t be a problem anymore.
That included having others yank at the ball as he went through drills, just carrying the ball around with him during the day making sure it was held high and tight, carrying the ball through running drills, “even when I’m at home playing Xbox — one hand on the controller and one hand on the ball.”
“I did almost everything you can do to work on ball-handling and controlling the ball and ball security, and (I) haven’t fumbled yet,” Thompson said Thursday before knocking on the table to avoid jinxing himself. “I don’t plan on fumbling the rest of camp or the whole season.”
Again, nothing wrong with a little confidence.
Herndon eager to get his shot
Whenever the Florida coaches have been asked about the running backs this preseason, they’ve made a point to mention redshirt-senior Mark Herndon in the mix.
Herndon has managed just 11 carries in four seasons so far with the Gators, but he missed most of the 2014 season with a torn ACL. He returned to play in 14 games last fall. Offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier suggested that Herndon is a different player now after having that full year to acclimate back into action.
“I think Mark Herndon was a guy last year really trying to find his way back to health and not really able to contribute at the level he’s able to this season,” Nussmeier said. “Really excited about (him) — he did a great job on special teams, but the offensive element that he developed through spring and the things that he was capable of doing (is intriguing).”
Meeting with reporters Thursday, Herndon reflected back on that ACL injury that limited him to just three games in 2014.
“I wouldn’t wish that upon anybody — my worst enemy, I would not,” he said. “Because the pain and the rehab and the doubting yourself, everything that you go through with an ACL (tear) … it’s probably one of the hardest things to come back from because there’s a lot of questions on the other side. You don’t know if you’re going to come back as good, if your knee is going to be as good as it was before. …
“But I’m over that hump already. Now it’s just focusing on football and not worrying about anything because if I’m going to get hurt, I’m going to get hurt and I can’t do anything to stop that.”
Herndon is fighting for carries with a pair of talented sophomores in Jordan Cronkrite and Jordan Scarlett, along with Thompson and true freshman Lamical Perine.
But he’s still holding out hope to play at the next level. He knows he needs to prove something this season to make that happen.
“I’m going to do everything that I can to keep that dream alive, so this is very important to me, this season — just to get some running back film,” he said. “I have a lot of special teams film and some good plays on special teams and people know I can play special teams, but the question is can I play running back in the SEC? And that’s the question I want to answer this year.”
Impressions of the QBs
In meeting with reporters Thursday, the running backs were also asked their impressions of the rest of the offense.
Thompson, in particular, offered his critique of the Gators’ two competing quarterbacks — redshirt sophomore Luke Del Rio and graduate transfer Austin Appleby.
“Del Rio knows the offense. It’s pretty obvious it’s a strong suit for him,” Thompson said. “He knows the check-downs, he knows the hots, he knows where to expect pressure, who’s where, where to put the ball. Austin has a great arm, he can read the field very well. Same with (true freshmen) Kyle (Trask) and Feleipe (Franks). They’re all good quarterbacks. They know what they’re doing in the backfield. It’s going to be interesting to see who comes out the starter.”
More thoughts on the offense
Scarlett and Cronkrite both said they see some encouraging signs from their blockers.
“Definitely a lot more communication coming from the offensive linemen,” Scarlett said.
“They definitely know their calls more,” Cronkrite said. “Last year there was a lot of slip-ups with little basic things, and now they’re on top of their game. It’s definitely an improvement there.”
Cronkrite also suggested familiarity with the playbook and the potential of the team’s new quarterbacks will allow the offense to take a step forward.
“We have different quarterbacks now this year, so we’ll definitely be able to open up the playbook more with more deep shots and things like that,” he said. “(Being better) able to read defenses and stuff like that and not being one-dimensional and stick(ing) to certain base plays that we feel confident with, we’re able to open up the playbook more now this year.”
Ryan Young is a Florida beat writer for SEC Country and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.