GAINESVILLE, Fla. — When new Florida running backs coach Ja’Juan Seider joined the staff this spring he didn’t necessarily seek out a scouting report from his predecessor Tim Skipper, who moved to the defensive side to accommodate his arrival.
“I’m a big believer on forming my own opinion,” Seider said. “You may watch a movie and you may not like it. I may watch a movie and I may think different.”
That said, Seider already had some strong opinions about one Gators running back in particular.
He had recruited junior Jordan Scarlett since the running back’s eighth grade year, back when he was coaching at Marshall before moving on to West Virginia and continuing to pursue the Fort Lauderdale prospect.
Scarlett spoke earlier this spring about that well-established connection with Seider, and the new assistant coach reflected earlier this week on the development he’s seen from the running back from then to now after finally getting to work with him.
“I like that he knows who he is as a running back,” Seider said. “You know, he’s not a guy who’s going to sit there and juke and try to make a lot of people miss. He’s going to put his foot in the ground and go forward, and I think as a running back when you find yourself early you play to your strength. Right now, he’s playing to his strength.”
Getting the ball in Scarlett’s hands, meanwhile, plays to Florida’s strengths after he turned in a breakout season last fall, rushing for 889 yards and 6 touchdowns on 179 carries (5.0 yards per attempt).
Scarlett managed to consistently stand out despite the Gators’ insistence on employing a running back-by-committee approach most of the season. His big games included 101 rushing yards and a touchdown on 12 carries against Missouri, 93 yards and a TD on 26 carries against Georgia, 134 yards on 20 carries against South Carolina, 108 yards on 22 totes against LSU and 94 yards on 14 attempts versus Iowa.
Over the second half of the season, he clearly asserted himself as the lead back and heads into 2017 with legitimate potential for a 1,000-yard season — something only two Florida running backs have achieved in the past 12 years.
But it still remains to be seen just how large a share of the workload the Gators are willing to hand Scarlett.
“That’s a hard question to answer. We’re in spring practice, and we’re pushing these guys to the limit and they’re responding. It’s different on Saturday because every drive is different,” Seider said. “You might have a drive where it’s a five-play drive, you may have a drive where it’s a 10, 16-play drive where he’s going to be tired. You need to get him out and get him fresh and then you never know how many plays we’re going to play throughout the game. It could be a 50-play game or it could be a game we got 80 snaps. It depends on how we do on offense. There’s a lot of areas that dictate how long he plays in a game.”
There’s another factor to consider, which Seider sees as a positive.
The Gators have promising depth at the position with sophomore Lamical Perine looking to build on a strong debut season (91 carries for 421 yards and 1 TD) and senior Mark Thompson (68-299-2) claiming a more mature approach after a mostly lackluster first season in Gainesville.
“I think we’re very competitive. I think we’ve got a very unselfish room, which is important especially when you’ve got one ball,” Seider said as spring practice draws to a close this week. “I think guys have been very competitive in everything they do. Who can score? Who can get the first down? Who can make that block? It’s competitive nature. Nobody is saying, ‘I should be getting this, I should be getting that.’ It’s a room that is pulling for each other so I’m very pleased with that.”
Fans groaned about the running back-by-committee approach at times last fall, particularly in moments when Scarlett would string together big runs and then be relegated to the sideline the next couple series.
While Seider doesn’t know yet how the carries will be divided or how much of a true workhorse Scarlett will end up being, he supports the committee approach in concept.
“I think this day and age there’s no truly dotting the I, where you’re sitting in one spot the whole game. We ask these guys to do so much from running routes, to blocking, to running the ball. They’re going to get tired,” he said. “It’s hot, it’s humid, you know what I mean? I play multiple guys. I think a fresh back is better than a tired back. You always remember that as a coach because that’s when bad things happen. If a kid’s hot, he’s hot, as long as he can keep going (you keep him in there). But if he’s looking over to the sideline, he needs a blow, you’ve got to get him out of the game. Especially when you got other guys you can put in and not miss a beat.”
Florida’s running back depth is certainly an asset, and unlike last season the Gators head into 2017 with a good sense of what they have within that group.
A year ago, Scarlett and Jordan Cronkrite (who has since transferred) were both looking to break out while Thompson had just arrived as a junior college transfer and Perine as a true freshman.
While Seider is still making his own evaluations of those guys, he likes what he sees so far — especially finally observing first-hand that full potential he projected all those years back for Scarlett.
“You know what, I see him taking off,” Seider said. “Here’s a kid who always had natural ability. He was always big, he was always fast, he was always strong. You know, I never really saw him (have to) take over the game because he always had great talent around him. I’m starting to see him now in the spring take over things. He broke off one last week for like 75-80 yards, you know again, trusting himself, pressing and … doing the little things that you talk about in the meeting room that carry over to the field.”