All the Florida football talk this offseason has revolved around whether Malik Zaire or Feleipe Franks will be the starting quarterback when the Gators open 2017 season against Michigan on Sept. 2.
But SEC Network analysts on Tuesday emphasized another goal that coach Jim McElwain and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier need to focus on as they prepare for their third season at Florida.
The running game needs to get going. More specifically, Jordan Scarlett needs to get going.
Scarlett emerged late last season as Florida’s top running back option after splitting reps early in a four-person rotation with Jordan Cronkrite, Lamical Perine and Mark Thompson. By the end of the season, Scarlett had a team-high 889 yards and six touchdowns on 179 carries (5 yards per carry). The other three running backs combined for 865 yards and four touchdowns on 190 carries (4.6 yards per carry).
“Jordan Scarlett is one of the premier running backs in the SEC,” said analyst Booger McFarland, a former defensive lineman at LSU who spent nine years in the NFL
Tack on the fact that the Gators return four starters on the offensive line — notably center T.J. McCoy and Martez Ivey, who will move over to left tackle — and the Gators have the potential to make strides in the ground game.
“Put Jordan Scarlett behind McCoy and you start to see an offense that can be a little more ball control,” McFarland said. “We’re talking a lot about quarterback. There’s uncertainty there, at the very least. There’s not uncertainty at running back.”
But in McElwain’s first two season, the running game has played second fiddle to an erratic passing attack. In 2016, the Gators ranked last in the SEC and 113th out of 128 Football Bowl Subdivision schools in average rushing yards (128.23 yards). Florida was also 113th in 2015, McElwain’s first season with the Gators.
In Florida’s eight losses under McElwain, the Gators averaged just 2.43 yards per carry.
“The passing game, even though they’ve had really inconsistent quarterback play, has had moments where it’s been OK,” said analyst and former Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy, who played under McElwain when the two were in Alabama from 2008-2010. “But the running game in his entire tenure has left an awful lot to be desired.”
“I think that is priority No. 1: Get the running game going, which will take the pressure off the quarterback position”
Scarlett has the chance to make the difference.
A stocky 5-foot-10, 213-pound running back, Scarlett has the combination of power to break away from initial contact at the line of scrimmage and top-end speed to make a run to the end zone once he finds a hole.
“Go with what you know,” McFarland said. “Scarlett is a guy you can lean on.”