Gators notebook: Lingard, Bowman fill running back room with speed

Graham Hall
Special to The Sun
Clemson transfer Demarkcus Bowman is behind the Gators' other running backs after missing most of spring drills due to injury.

Florida assistant coach Greg Knox sees former five-star running backs Demarkcus Bowman and Lorenzo Lingard as potential “home-run hitters” in the offense this season, which is expected to place a greater emphasis on the run game after employing a pass-oriented attack the previous two seasons.

“If they get in open space, they are a threat to put that ball in the end zone,” Knox said. “They're home-run hitters."

The duo may be the highest-rated prospects in the backfield, but Bowman and Lingard are presumably behind Malik Davis, Dameon Pierce and Nay'Quan Wright when it comes to the pecking order of Florida’s running backs, though their placement is based on their knowledge of the offense rather than ability. 

Knox said Lingard, who arrived at UF just prior to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, is practicing at a much higher level in preseason camp, and it’s because of his increased knowledge of the offense. 

"I think it's understanding how to read a defense. How to gather information that the defense is giving you and how to process it. I think that's one of the biggest keys with our guys. I think that's why Lorenzo is playing much faster now than he played last year,” Knox said. “He's more comfortable in the offense, he can process information and he can use it to his advantage and execute to a high level. I see that in all my veteran guys whether it be Pierce, Davis, Nay'Quan Wright, Lingard, those guys that have been in the program for years, they play relaxed and they execute at a high level because they don't think, they just react."

The odd one out is Bowman, the most recent arrival in the room. The Lakeland native missed much of Spring practice, meaning he’s in the midst of what the program hopes is his first full camp with the Gators. 

Expectations for Bowman are sky-high, and for good reason, although Knox is adamant that despite his breakaway potential, he’s still in the learning phase. 

"Yeah, I didn't have a chance to see much of him until he got to camp and we had him in spring and he got injured like the fifth day of practice. So, he was out basically the entire spring and so now we really get a chance to see him. So now we get a chance to see him in action and he is very explosive,” Knox said. “He is a very, very good running back, OK? Now, we just gotta get him to understand the offense, learn the offense and develop as a young player. He's still a young player, he's still a freshman.”

Gators' pass protection a must

To contribute in the backfield, first and foremost one must have talent. Ask Knox, and he’ll tell you all of his running backs have the ability to compete every Saturday. 

Ultimately, it’s not blazing speed or steady hands that can make the difference between starting and sitting — rather it’s how Florida’s running backs fare in pass protection. 

Knox said it’s a requirement for each member of the backfield to be able to pick up a rusher and throw a block. Good luck seeing the field otherwise. 

"The most important thing has always been pass protection. When you ask any young running back, all right, that comes to our program — or any program — they're gonna say the most difficult thing they had to learn was the pass protection. Because, in high school, it wasn't that detailed,” Knox said. “And so here, when they get here, and they get to any college, pass protection is the biggest adjustment that any young player has to make in the backfield."

It’s another reason why Bowman isn’t quite ready to be an every-down back, Knox said. Again, it’s no fault of his own, it’s just an aspect of the development process for underclassmen. 

“He's learning a totally new offense, and like I said earlier, pass protection is one of the biggest things he has to grasp and take hold of as a young player,” Knox said of Bowman. “And so, that for him, it's tough right now, but he's learning a lot. You know, he's trying to be very detailed in meetings, he's taking notes and he's getting better every day. I'm excited about what we're seeing right now."

Knox doesn’t want his ball-carriers to just block in the backfield, however — he wants them capable of getting to the next level of the defense. 

“I think we as running backs are understanding how to deliver the second-level player to linebackers to the line, you know, not the line having to chase those guys, but as backs we've delivered a second-level players to our linemen, and then we allow them to block them,” Knox said. “So basically what we're doing is we're setting up the blocks and creating big plays, and we’ve got to continue to do a great job of that." 

UF punter striving for consistency, and a battle at kicker

Knox’s preseason turn with the media wasn’t entirely about the running backs, as he discussed his other role, too — UF’s special teams coordinator. 

Redshirt freshman Jeremy Crawshaw out of New South Wales, Australia, is expected to take over as Florida’s starting punter this season, though that doesn’t mean he’s a finished product, Knox said. 

The underclassmen possesses a powerful leg, but he needs to be more consistent on his punts. 

"I feel good. We've been going through our punt circuit, our punt drills, doing everything. I got on him about being consistent today and that's one thing I wanna see. I'll see a 60-yard punt and then I'll see a 30-yard punt. We want to work for consistency,” Knox said. “I feel good about his skillset and the things he can do and I think everybody on our punt team sees he can flip the field for us, and that's what we really need him to do."

As for the role of Florida’s kicker, Knox said returning kicker Chris Howard and graduate transfer Jace Christmann continue to battle for the starting spot, and the competition amps up at the end of each and every practice. 

“We’re putting pressure on them daily. We have them come up and kick at the end of practice. All the guys gather around, and they’re yelling and screaming and making a lot of noise. And we make it a competition thing where if one guy misses — the defense has a kicker — and the whole defense has to run. If the offensive kicker misses, all right, then the whole offense has to run. We’re making it competitive, and both of those guys are really competing,” Knox said. “It’s going to really be a good fight to actually see who wins this thing out of those two. You know, Chris is doing a good job. He’s experienced. He’s been here. Jace has come in, and he’s a veteran at the game. You know, he’s been in a lot of games, he’s been into battle. So, this is a competitive battle between those two.”

Return of the return?

The Gators have scored just three touchdowns on punts or kickoffs throughout Dan Mullen’s three seasons at Florida, but there’s some optimism that may change in Year Four. At the conclusion of the first week of camp, Mullen mentioned Lakeland native Fenley Graham as a primary option in the return game, and Knox further praised his development. 

Whether it’s Graham or not, Knox said the Gators are looking for a “dynamic” playmaker to field punts and kickoffs this season. 

“Fenley's doing a good job, you know, I'm excited about — again, he could be a return guy for us. He's a very natural punt catcher. He's back there on kickoff returns, so he's the guy that we're really evaluating right now for that position. We're looking for a guy to be dynamic like Toney was. Again, it's hard to replace Kadarius Toney. But Fenley Graham has shown us some things,and it's really big — I've been expressing to him every day, it's about making smart decisions,” Knox said. “When on punt return, making smart decisions — on kickoff return, making smart decisions. So he is a guy that we're really, really evaluating, and again, he's working hard at doing the things we asked him to do."