NASHVILLE — Jordan Scarlett won’t say it, but he needs more carries.
Or, at least, he needed more carries in No. 23 Florida’s 13-6 win Saturday at Vanderbilt.
The sophomore running back willed the Gators (4-1, 2-1 SEC) into the end zone in the second quarter on their only touchdown drive of the game, creating a 24-yard rush out of nothing and then eluding a tackler in the backfield on a 4-yard scoring run. And then he didn’t touch the ball again until the fourth quarter.
Florida’s four-headed running back-by-committee makes some sense on the surface. The coaches believe they have four talented running backs. This is a way to keep them fresh and utilize their different talents.
But the inflexibility that leads to Scarlett, the best offensive player in the first half, getting only four carries through three quarters is not as understandable.
Even if Scarlett himself tried to defend it.
“It just gives me some time to take some mental reps and just see what the defense is doing out there,” he said, while confirming that he was not injured at any point in the game. “But I just try my best staying warm on the sideline and when they call up my number I do what I can.”
It took several questions before he finally admitted at least some frustration.
“Yeah, just a little bit, but it kind of helps and it kind of doesn’t,” he said. “You feel like, ‘Dang, I want to be in there right now. I can do this, I can do that.’ But then you’ve got another dude that can do it just as good as you. You’ve just got to be a team player. It’s a learning lesson for me at the moment, and I’m enjoying the process.”
Scarlett finished with 55 yards and that touchdown in 12 carries Saturday and leads the Gators this season with 274 yards and 4 touchdowns on an average of 5.0 yards per carry.
True freshman Lamical Perine (6 carries for 28 yards) and sophomore Jordan Cronkrite (2-13) had better per-carry averages Saturday, and there is a place for those two and junior Mark Thompson (7-11) in the game plan.
But it seems like the coaches commit to a usage order for their backs in advance and aren’t willing to deviate from it.
Head coach Jim McElwain didn’t offer any insight into that thought process after the game as he was more fixated on the fact that Scarlett didn’t score on a first-and-goal carry from the 1 late in the fourth quarter. On the next play, the Gators fumbled on what was supposed to be a quarterback sneak.
“I mean, can’t you run it in the end zone down there? I mean, get your pads down,” he said. “… They all did some things in spurts. I thought Lamical did some good things. You’ve got to be able to run the ball in the end zone down there at the end of the game. That wasn’t good.”
It’s a question that will surely be re-asked to McElwain on Monday during his next media session.
Running backs coach Tim Skipper had said during an appearance on “Gator Talk” last week that if a guy gets hot and breaks off a long run he’ll stay in the game. But that’s not what happened Saturday.
The series after Scarlett’s touchdown drive, Cronkrite took the only handoff (and picked up 10 yards on a nice run). On Florida’s next series, in the third quarter, Thompson and Perine split the carries and Perine stayed in for the following series.
After Scarlett rushed for 28 yards on that second-quarter touchdown drive, the Gators managed 19 yards of offense total in the third quarter without him (counting a 10-yard holding penalty).
Scarlett said that while the running back usage is “strategized” before the game, he doesn’t know exactly when his turns will come.
“No, I don’t know when it’s coming. It’s just when coach calls on me to get in, I’ve just got to do what I can to help the team,” he said.
When he returned to the backfield for Florida’s first series of the fourth quarter, Scarlett rushed for 26 yards on 5 carries to help set up a field goal.
He did second McElwain’s opinion that he should have scored on that goal-line carry later in the fourth.
“I think I did pretty good, but there’s a lot of things I could improve on. On that second run on the sideline where I could have scored and lowered my pad level, I kind of got complacent and thought I was in there,” he said.
Again, though, Scarlett mostly stuck to the script in his postgame comments, speaking of his support for the committee approach at running back.
He’s not going to complain about his usage Saturday, though many fans no doubt will — and with good reason.
“I just feel like I’ve got to play my part. I’m not really here for any individual stuff. I’m here to just bring the team together and come for a win,” he said. “So whatever coach wants me to do, whether it’s goal line or short yardage or whatever, I’m all for it.”