GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Jordan Scarlett has emerged as the Florida’s most effective running back.
Whether you measure based on traditional statistics like yards per carry (5.0) or more advanced ones like yards after contact (3.2) or missed tackles (22), Scarlett clearly is the Gators’ best runner.
But Florida does have four good running backs. Lamical Perine, Mark Thompson and Jordan Cronkrite are more than serviceable. But Scarlett has excelled.
So, why has the coaching staff been insistent on spreading the ball around rather than focusing the offense on Scarlett?
I think the answer is that running the ball is only a third of the running back’s job. Every-down running backs have to be a threat as a receiver and — more importantly — be able to help in pass protection.
Scarlett didn’t play much at all last year, while Cronkrite got a majority of the snaps when Kelvin Taylor came out of the game. I suspect the reason for this had to do with Cronkrite being a better receiver and being better in pass protection.
This is illustrated in the clip below on a key third-and-6 against Tennessee.
Scarlett is responsible for picking up the blitzing linebacker on the offensive right side. He looks confused about his responsibility and completely whiffs on his block. Left tackle David Sharpe also was beaten on the play, but Scarlett’s inability to even get a hand on the blitzing linebacker ensures QB Austin Appleby cannot step up to escape the Tennessee defensive end.
And pass protection is not just blitz pickup. Below against Kentucky, it appears that Scarlett is supposed to help out the right tackle by chipping the Kentucky defensive end. But Scarlett just brushes past the defensive end, who subsequently beats the Florida right tackle. Luke Del Rio gets pressured and almost fumbles while trying to hit Scarlett, who is his outlet receiver.
Notice that there aren’t any Kentucky defenders within 10 yards of Scarlett when the ball falls incomplete. Kentucky completely ignored him as a receiver, and this was going to be a big play if Del Rio had time to get him the ball. But he didn’t have time because the pass protection scheme was not executed correctly.
These aren’t isolated incidents. Just two plays later, Scarlett’s effort trying to block the defensive tackle is suspect, flushing Del Rio right into the Kentucky defensive end.
There’s plenty of blame to go around on this play. Left guard Martez Ivey gets thrown aside way too fast, leaving Scarlett exposed. Right tackle Fred Johnson gets bull-rushed right into Del Rio. This play was doomed because of lack of execution in many different facets, but Scarlett played a key role.
By contrast, Cronkrite seems to know his assignments and tries to execute the correct block.
In the first quarter against Tennessee, Florida was facing a third-and-2. Cronkrite’s job is to give Appleby time to get to his hot read, tight end C’yontai Lewis. Lewis drops the pass, but Cronkrite did his job well enough that Appleby had time to execute even though Tennessee was bringing an aggressive blitz.
Another example was against Kentucky, where the play call was for a quick pass to tight end DeAndre Goolsby.
Cronkrite’s job is to cut the defensive end. He doesn’t get him on the ground, and it really isn’t a pretty block. But he does get him in the air, allowing Del Rio to navigate the pass around the defensive end to a wide-open Goolsby.
In addition to pass protection, Cronkrite also is a threat out of the backfield as a receiver (11 catches for 75 yards) while Scarlett is not (2 catches for 9 yards). So, having Scarlett in the game basically screams “running play,” because the Gators aren’t going to throw him the ball and he might screw up the protection.
Never was this more apparent than the opening drive of the second half against Tennessee.
On third-and-1, Florida had Scarlett in the backfield. The video shows that Tennessee’s middle linebacker is coming full-tilt to stop the run. The Vols sold out for the run so completely that the corner is giving Antonio Callaway a 6-yard cushion and immediately backpedals at the snap.
Opposing teams have clearly noticed on film what I’ve noticed watching at home. When Scarlett is in the game, the Gators are more likely to run than pass. This is why Scarlett isn’t getting more playing time. The coaches don’t trust him to pass protect and they are forced into tendencies that make the offense easier to defend.
With Cronkrite in the game, his ability to catch the ball has to be respected. This was key on the bomb to Callaway against Kentucky.
Florida fakes the run to Cronkrite, who releases into the flat. He is picked up by both a defensive end and a linebacker (No. 34 for Kentucky). That started a chain reaction that forced the other Kentucky linebacker (No. 51) to cover Goolsby (who had stayed in to pass protect), which forced the Kentucky secondary into defending Callaway and Brandon Powell 3-on-2.
Everything had to go right for this play to work. Del Rio had to look to his right to lure the safety over to Powell, leaving Callaway 1-on-1 with an overmatched corner. The pass protection had to give Del Rio time for the routes to develop. But had Scarlett been in the game, one of the linebackers might have been able to drop back into Powell’s route, allowing the safety to double Callaway.
It will be interesting to see how the Florida coaching staff uses this going forward. My suspicion is it is going to continue the trend of running with Scarlett against overmatched opponents like Missouri. This will allow the coaches to pull out a few wrinkles against Georgia, Florida State and potentially LSU.
But if Scarlett is going to take the next step in his development, he is going to have to improve his pass protection. He’s too good of a running back to be on the bench, but the offense is currently limited with him on the field.