Even with a potentially elite running back and excellent depth behind him, the Florida running game was non-existence for long stretches last season. The line, with only one senior and a lot of freshmen backups, never really established itself, especially in terms of generating a push in the ground game.
Now that the potentially elite back, Lamical Perine, is gone, getting ready for the NFL season, is there any reason to think the Gators’ running game will be any better in 2020?
Well, here are five reasons:
- The running back room
Even though Perine is gone, there’s a lot of talent and experience at the running back position. The latest news, the big news, is that former five-star recruit and Miami transfer Lorenzo Lingard is eligible this season. Fast and elusive, he’s had time to recover from a knee injury that slowed him at UM and should have an immediate impact in the running game. But he’s going to have to fight for playing time. Junior Dameon Pierce has given every indication that he’s ready to become a go-to guy in the running game, and junior Malik Davis is fully healthy again and has flashed big-time ability in his career. Excellent depth, and a lot of potential, should come from Iverson Clement and redshirt freshman Nay’Quan Wright, who can quickly go the distance.
- Emory Jones
We saw it last year, even behind a suspect line, when Emory Jones was in the game at quarterback, the running game was clearly better because run defenses had to account for him, whereas Kyle Trask really wasn’t much of a running threat. By all accounts, Jones is going to see more playing time this season, which translates to more opportunities in the running game. He made the most of his 42 carries last season, rushing for 256 yards and four touchdowns and averaging 6.1 yards a carry, best on the team.He could double those totals for carries, yards and TDs this season.
- Experience up front
Center Nick Buchanan was the only senior on last year’s offensive line, and the overall lack of experience and leadership up front had to contribute to the Gators averaging just 129.8 yards a game on the ground. In 2020, the Gators will have four seasoned seniors on the line, all of them probable starters — guard/center Brett Heggie, tackle Stone Forsythe, tackle Jean Delance and guard/tackle Stewart Reese. The big addition to the line is Reese, the graduate transfer from Mississippi State who played in 34 games for the Bulldogs over the past three seasons. He’s experienced, physically ready to play and is versatile enough to play guard or tackle. It’s a combination that should make him an instant starter at one of those two positions. With more experience, and strong senior leadership, the line should be a more cohesive unit in 2020, which translates to a better running game.
- The 2019 recruiting class
The Gators signed seven offensive linemen two years ago and five remain — Ethan White, Riley Simond, Kingsley Eguakun, Michael Tarquin and Will Harrod. White went through a physical makeover last summer, losing about 50 pounds and adding considerable strength, and ended up seeing significant playing time as a true freshman. He’s a potential starter and a guy the coaches know they can count on. The other four all redshirted in 2019 and now should be good to go physically and mentally. They should provide quality depth — and a reason to feel good about the future.
- John Hevesy
He is considered one of the better offensive line coaches in college football and has a track record for building strong, sturdy and dependable fronts that can produce in the running game as well as pass protect. He’s facing a similar situation to the one he had in 2018, his return season to UF with Dan Mullen. Hevesy took over a struggling line that had problems generating a running game in 2017 and had surrendered a combined 110 sacks over the previous three seasons. He took many of those same players and transformed them into an eventual team strength in 2018. That line gave up only 18 sacks and helped pave the way for a running game that took off in the second half of the season. Over the final four games, the Gators averaged 276.7 yards a game rushing. The potential is there for the 2020 line to follow a similar path with Hevesy.