GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida running back Jordan Scarlett is usually refreshingly candid in interviews, willing to express a strong opinion or offer real insight into a topic.
On Friday it was the Gators’ use of a committee approach at running back last season, and sure enough he didn’t hold back.
“Considering what happened last year, I don’t think splitting carries would be the best thing because it obviously got us ranked last. But I don’t know, that’s not up to me,” Scarlett said.
Indeed, Florida finished at the bottom of the SEC in rushing last season at 128.23 yards per game.
There was a variety of reasons for that, including inconsistent play along the offensive line and limited respect from opposing defenses for the Gators’ passing attack.
But even as Scarlett looked to be the best running back on the field most of the time, it took him until the seventh game to get more than 13 carries on a Saturday as the coaches rotated Mark Thompson, Lamical Perine and former Gator Jordan Cronkrite through the backfield.
Scarlett’s role expanded as the season progressed — as it become clearer and clearer that he deserved a heavier workload — and he ultimately finished with a team-high 889 rushing yards and 6 touchdowns on a team-best 5.0 yards per carry, while maximizing his opportunities. According to Pro Football Focus, Scarlett forced the most missed tackles (50) among Power 5 running backs with less than 200 carries.
Now he’s ready to show what he can do over a full season as the Gators’ lead back — or, at least, that’s the plan.
“Just fill in the shoes of being that featured back and make Coach Mac proud,” he said. “Whatever’s in the game plan and whatever’s expected. I can’t really be the one to say how many carries I need. It’s just whatever they give me I’m just going to make the most of it.”
Scarlett says he’s gotten stronger since last season, increasing his max on the squat from 520 pounds to about 580 while his bench press is up to 365 pounds.
He hopes that will make an impact in his blocking while only making him even tougher to bring down.
That Pro Football Focus data also credited Scarlett with averaging 3.75 yards after contact and for staying up through first contact on 40.8 percent of his rushes last season, which ranked No. 3 among running backs in the upcoming 2018 draft class.
“I take a lot of pride in that because I take a lot of pride in running hard and not trying to get tackled by one man. I’m glad that a lot of people are noticing that about me,” he said.
On merit, Scarlett has clearly earned the right to be a featured back heading into his junior season, and yet the Gators’ running back depth is even more impressive this fall.
Perine will be looking to build on a very promising freshman season in which he rushed for 421 yards on 91 attempts (4.6 yards per carry) and added 161 receiving yards. Thompson remains a wildcard after finishing a lackluster 2016 season by making his biggest impact in the final game, scoring on an 85-yard catch-and-run touchdown in the Outback Bowl against Iowa. And the Gators added a pair of highly-intriguing freshmen running backs in Malik Davis and Adarius Lemons.
As coach Jim McElwain put it in his opening comments at the team’s media day last week, “I think our running back room is real.”
Whatever the division of carries ends up being, Perine acknowledged he expects Scarlett to get the majority of touches. But that doesn’t change anything for him.
“That guy right there, he works real hard, so I’m pretty sure he’s going to be the lead back this year, but all of us will be taking carries,” Perine said.
Perine and Scarlett are living in the same house this year and have built a strong bond off the field despite competing for opportunities on it, both said.
“We’re very close friends. We talk every day. Anytime I have any questions to ask him, he doesn’t mind answering them. He’s not a selfish guy at all. … I’m not a selfish person. We’re just going to make each other better and compete,” Perine said.
As with any position, McElwain loves seeing the competition at that spot and what it brings out in each guy.
He noted that while he saw those returning running backs perhaps just happy to be on the field at times in the past, he sees a different purpose to their approach now.
And, in turn, he’s optimistic for a different level of production as well.
While he was rattling off his impressions of the unit Friday, McElwain segued into a seemingly broad statement about where he feels the Gators are as a program heading into his third year.
The connection was clear — that a lot of what he feels is still missing from the offense was reflected in those meager rushing totals last fall.
“Look, we’ve been OK. We’ve been, you know, whatever. Been to Atlanta and all that stuff. But we’re not good enough. Pushing us through average is really what I want to get done, and we’ll see,” he said. “I’m not making predictions, but that’s what we have to do. Those things, like you’re talking about, the running through contact and the physicality in how they’re playing only carries over to a game.”
Scarlett is eager lead the transformation of the Gators’ ground attack, with whatever workload the coaches will allow him. Eager to prove he can and should be a featured back.
Perine, meanwhile, is ready to prove he deserves to be on the field too, while at the same time looking to stay ahead of two freshmen aiming to show that they too can be contributors this year.
“I got these words from Coach (Randy) Shannon,” Perine said. “‘He was just like, ‘We bring people in to take your position. If they take your position, it’s good. If they don’t take your position, we’re still good.’ So it’s just competitive. You’ve got to be competitive at all times. I feel like we’ve got a competitive team this year. Everybody is ready to win. We’ve just got to be one.”
The Gators might not have a deeper position group anywhere on the field than at running back, and it will be interesting to see how they make use of that once the games begin.
However it shakes out, though, the expectations are high — individually and collectively — and nobody involved will be content settling for the status quo.