After getting manhandled up front in the loss to Kentucky on Sept. 8, it appeared Florida’s offensive line and running backs were headed for a long and potentially unproductive season again.
The arrow was clearly pointing down for the Gators’ running game.
Now, it’s just as clearly pointing up.
Like the other aspects of Florida’s offense, there has been steady change and improvement in the running game over the course of the season. The line has been more assertive and physical, the running backs have been finding the holes and hitting them.
The results have been pretty impressive.
Since rushing for only 128 yards in the loss to the Wildcats, the Gators have averaged 209 yards rushing a game, including a 215-yard performance against one of the nation’s strongest defensive fronts (LSU) three weeks ago and a season-high 292-yard effort against Vanderbilt two weeks ago.
The offensive line and the running game have gone from a troubling question mark to a potential team strength.
How has this happened?
“I think it’s just guys understanding the scheme a little bit better, both the backs and the quarterbacks, understanding what plays to get us into and how to check us into the right plays,” UF coach Dan Mullen said. “Our coaches, just finding what our guys do well and making sure we’re putting them in position to be successful. But more importantly, I think it’s the line being comfortable with the schemes we’re blocking and the backs being comfortable with how the plays are supposed to hit.”
Whatever it is, the Gators have started having consistent success in the running game, something that was missing earlier in the season and for most of all of last season.
Jordan Scarlett, Lamical Perine and true freshman Dameon Pierce have made the running back position perhaps the most productive in an ever improving offense. They have combined to rush for 1,052 yards and eight touchdowns and are averaging 6.5 yards a carry.
“They have really come on,” Mullen said of the running backs. “They’re starting to get real comfortable in our offense and how to run the plays within the offense and how plays hit in our offense.
“I’ve seen a huge step from those guys from game one to now. Hopefully, they’ll continue that confidence and that progression to keep moving in the right direction.”
Scarlett said the backs and line have started to mesh.
“Just the whole offense, just believing in what we can do,” Scarlett said. “The offensive line is sticking together, working together and we’re working together with them in sync.”
The veteran offensive line was supposed to be a team strength last season, but wasn’t. After that UK game, it looked like it might be more of the same this season.
But the big guys have finally come together and are starting to play up to expectations.
“They’ve gotten a lot better,” Scarlett said. “They improve every day, working hard every day. It’s really just a matter of knowing what you’ve got to do and knowing your assignment. They can execute and block any guy in front of them. It’s just really knowing what we’ve got to do.”
Offensive line coach John Hevesy is one of those coaches who are hard to please. But even he seems happy with the progress that’s been made in the running game and on the offensive line.
“It’s getting better,” Hevesy said of the running game. “We’ve gotten better slowly each week. We’ve just got to keep maintaining that mentality. To win in this league and to win in this game (with Georgia), you absolutely have to be able to run the ball well to help the passing game.
“It’s a mentality. It’s slowly building up with (the offensive linemen) understanding that part of being physical up front and knocking people back and worry about the linebacker later. Just take care of down linemen.
“They’re getting better. I’m pleased. I’ll give it that. But we still have a long way to go.”
The offensive line — and the running game — is facing another tough challenge in Jacksonville on Saturday. The Bulldogs’ are fast and physical up front and will be determined to shut down UF’s run and put the game in the hands of quarterback Feleipe Franks.
The Gators, of course, want to avoid that by establishing a steady ground game again and taking some of the pressure off Franks and the passing game.
“We have to be physical up front and set the tone,” senior offensive guard Tyler Jordan said. “If we can punch these guys in the mouth, we’ve got to keep going. We can’t punch these guys in the mouth and stall out. We have to be consistent all day.
“They’re a physical team and they’re strong. You can see that on film. I think that they’ve got some talented guys up front. It’s going to be a challenge for us, but we love challenges.”