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Lamical Perine will be the Gators' starting running back following Jordan Scarlett's suspension.

The chess game up front could decide Florida-Michigan matchup

The build-up to Florida vs. Michigan has been dominated by quarterback controversies, suspension controversies, depth chart controversies, and all manner of off-the-field storylines. Finally, mercifully, one of the most anticipated games of the college football season is here. It’s time to play ball.

“We’re heading to Texas to beat the heck out of Michigan,” Florida coach Jim McElwain told the media prior to the matchup, which kicks off at 3:30 p.m. Saturday in Arlington, Texas.

It’s a cliché to say games are won or lost in the trenches, but that’s exactly where the outcome of this game will be decided. Can Florida run the ball down the throat of a stout Michigan defense? Can they beat the heck out of them?

The team needs it. McElwain announced Wednesday that redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks will be the Gators’ starting quarterback. A strong run game would take pressure off the young signal caller in his first start.

Florida’s offensive line is its strongest offensive unit. Starting tackles Jawaan Taylor and Martez Ivey are the best offensive players on the team (well, of those who are regularly available). They’re both towering figures who have the girth and skill to open running lanes all by themselves. And the unit as a whole showed promise down the stretch in 2016, particularly against LSU, which they consistently blew off the ball with little more than sheer will.

The offense will be hampered, in part, by starting a young pup at quarterback, but also the suspension of starting running back Jordan Scarlett. Scarlett has been suspended indefinitely by the school as part of an ongoing investigation that has seen eight other players suspended.

Scarlett’s spot at the top of the depth chart will be replaced by Lamical Perine, but a whole host of characters are likely to see carries. Perine would have seen a bunch of the ball, but now he’s the guy. 

Perine is a different runner than Scarlett. He’s shiftier, but he brings less thump to the Gators’ downhill attack. He excels at getting in and out of small creases, shrinking his body as he slithers through crevices in the line.

If the Gators are able to distort the levels of the defensive front, Perine has the patience and agility to take advantage.

That’ll be one heck of a task, though. They’re up against a dominant Michigan defensive line.

Don Brown, one of the best defensive coordinators in the country, heads up the group. He doesn’t do anything overly innovative, but he’s one of the best developers of players around. Everything he does is built around discipline: eye discipline, gap discipline, and individual discipline — technique and emotions.

Brown’s a staunch proponent of loading up to stop the run before worrying about any of that fancy-pants throwing the ball nonsense. He’s not afraid to march seven guys down to the line of scrimmage and leave boundary players on island.

It’s worked. Under Brown, Michigan’s defense has been as fundamentally sound as any in the nation. And with the guys they’ve recruited, and developed, they’ve been just as disruptive. They finished second in S&P+ in 2016 and 2015, and were first in the country in overall havoc rate last season.

Don’t expect a dropoff just because there’s been some big-name losses.

The Wolverines return three standouts in their front four, all of whom saw solid playing time in 2016, and put up quality production.

“We can’t even block Mo Hurst right now!” Jim Harbaugh said last week. “It’s been tough to block Mo Hurst and Rashan Gary  —  and Bryan Mone and Chase Winovich. All of those guys have been really good.”

Combined, that quartet totaled 31 run stuffs, 12 sacks, and 19 hits last season. They’ll be even better in 2017.

Hurst is the most well-rounded of the front four. He’s a natural penetrator. He plays low to the ground, has a great get-off, and seems to take pleasure in discarding interior linemen’s flailing arms in the most nonchalant way possible. He’s going to give Florida center TJ McCoy  —  and whoever they slide over to help him — problems.

Former top overall recruit Rashan Gray is the jewel in the crown. His combination of size, length, speed and technique doesn’t come around too often. The sophomore sensation is ready to go from freshman rotation piece to an every-down gameplan wrecker.

Gary has crazy length, the hops to beat linemen to their pass set, and enough dip to bend the edge and run the arc to the quarterback.

Gary’s freshman season embodies Brown as a coach. The lineman has supreme physical gifts. Those types of defensive front novices traditionally flash their rare athleticism on “wow” plays, whizzing past a lineman in the blink of an eye and dropping a quarterback. Those kinds of jaw-dropping plays will come in due course. Gary was at his best, though, doing the little things exceedingly well, the things you know made Brown smile, like setting a hard edge as the force defender:

I wouldn’t be surprised to see Brown stick Gary inside next to Hurst in a split front (two three-techniques) if he wants to get more speed on the field, or if wants to attempt to control who Florida double-teams. Gary lined up inside, outside, and as a wide-nine in both three- and four-man fronts during his freshman season.

Technique and brute force will decide the battle for the line of scrimmage. However, the X’s and O’s duel cannot be overlooked.

The Florida offensive braintrust of McElwain and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier likes to utilize basic power-run concepts, albeit dressed up with different wrinkles. Whether it’s a ghost motion, a funky alignment, or a pre-snap shift to throw the defense off the scent, they invariably wind up running old-school power-run staples.

McElwain is famous for the sheer volume of looks he presents defenses prior to the snap. Yet the core concepts of the plays never radically change. He may present a modern spread-to-run type formation pre-snap (with receivers in extreme plus splits outside the numbers), but he’s still running plays as old as football itself.

There’s no better example than the Gators’ ISO play. It’s a big-boy play. A “we’re bigger, more powerful, and better than you” play. It’s traditionally run from under center with a fullback. The offensive line builds in a double-team, getting the fullback directly up to a linebacker without having to go hunting, and the running back follows in behind the same gap.

It looks like this:

In typical McElwain fashion, he runs the same concept, with the same end result, over and over again, from every conceivable formation, with little quirks thrown in to make it tough for the defense to diagnose before it’s too late.

Here’s an example from Florida’s game against South Carolina last season:

It remains the same old-school isolation play, only with a H-Back displacing a fullback, and the quarterback is in the shotgun rather than under center.

The big difference in the play above is the disguise. The Gators are in an offset formation with an upback, one of their most prominent running looks, with the H-Back aligned to the opposite side of the formation to the running back. By doing so, the play unfolds like some kind of inverted ISO, with the H-Back running across the face of the QB before leading the back through a gap. It does, however, enact the same result — getting the lead blocker up to the linebacker 1-on-1, and getting the running back across the LOS untouched.

Michigan can complicate Florida’s power-run concepts by muddying the picture with a variety of gap exchanges or run stunts.

In the above example, South Carolina discombobulated Florida’s H-Back by slanting and angling through the gaps in the offensive line rather than rushing “head up.” The H-Back had to turn himself up field earlier than he had anticipated and the running back responded accordingly.

It’s tough to think that fast and have it pay off, play after play.

Brown likely will come with a hoard of gap exchanges, a Michigan hallmark, without committing extra bodies to the box.

By having defenders switch gaps at the snap, it makes it tough for the entire offense to read the play correctly:

  • The quarterback has to find the right backside defender.
  • The running back has to read and press the correct hole.
  • The offensive line has to figure out who they’re blocking (particularly difficult if they’re pulling on a power play).
  • The upback — usually blocking by gap — has a more difficult time “read” blocking.

Here’s an example from last season:

Against a split-zone, the Wolverines altered any quarterback read by shifting their gaps on the backside. On the playside, they did the same, leading to a perfect force-contain alley, and a free defender to swallow up the ball carrier.

The tactic can also be risky if the players exchanging gaps aren’t disciplined, if they miss their landmarks, or they’re late to their spots.

It will be interesting to see what kind of option packages, if any, McElwain and Nussmeier will build in.

Florida hasn’t been an option-based offense under McElwain and Nussmeier. They sprinkled in some option stylings last season when the side inevitably ground to a halt. There were signs in the spring game that option elements could play a more significant role in 2017.

They should. The Gators have two potential quarterbacks who are dangerous weapons with the ball in their hands.

Kadarius Toney is an explosive freshman who’s listed as a quarterback, but he could line up anywhere and everywhere on Saturday. He played the role of option quarterback during the Gators’ spring game, mostly running basic zone-reads.

Malik Zaire, however, hails from a more sophisticated option system at Notre Dame, opening up the possibility of more complex designs. His ability to throw from the pocket is in doubt. His running skills shouldn’t be.

Options alone could halt Brown’s gap exchanges, not wanting his players to be caught out of position. Conversely, we may see an increase in defensive exchanges, in a bid to force misreads. That’s the chess match of football! Some coaches like to muddy the “read” picture, others like to keep it simple and demand gap discipline.

Brown has shown both approaches. On some plays, usually zone options, he relies on the discipline of the read defender to make the right decision and play:

On others, like high-tendency option looks, he will send run-blitzes. This funky slot blitz is a creative one:

Not only did the boundary corner come, the defensive front slanted through its gaps. That forced the offensive line to move in unison toward the field side, while the corner attacked, unblocked, from the opposite side.

Ultimately, the game will come down to both sides lining up and crashing into one another.

If the Gators are able to establish a solid ground game, that will open up McElwain’s play-action attack, helping his young quarterback, and allowing them to control the rhythm of the game. If Michigan can disrupt the run and force Florida into third-and-long situations, it will be a long night for Franks, the Gators offense, and all Florida faithful.