Nay’Quan Wright proves critical in UF building first-half lead

Graham Hall
Special to The Sun
Florida running back Nay'Quan Wright (6) runs to the 1/2-yard line before being pushed out of bounds by Vanderbilt Commodores safety Dashaun Jerkins (3) in the first quarter Saturday at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

With redshirt senior running back Malik Davis a late scratch against Vanderbilt, UF running back Nay’Quan Wright was in for a larger workload — only he didn’t have much advance notice to prepare for a potential increase in touches. 

“I didn’t actually know. I thought he was playing this week,” Wright said of Davis. “He was in practice, so I thought he was playing.”

Wright said Davis was still leading the team from the UF sideline despite being unavailable. 

“Hats off to him, he’s a great leader. With him not playing, he was still on the sideline being a vocal leader, being one of the leaders that we need. So, it was still like he was playing. He was energized, he was leading. He was telling me, ‘Hey, you seen that cut? You seen this cut? You seen that blitz? So he was definitely leading.”

Considering how Wright played Saturday, odds are Davis was also cheering on his backfield teammate. 

Wright played a critical role during two first-half stretches Saturday – the opening drive and the final full drive just before halftime. 

The Gators’ rushing attack began with quarterback Emory Jones, who had the first two carries for nine yards and two yards, respectively, before Dameon Pierce rushed for no gain. 

After Trent Whittemore was targeted twice in the passing game, the first resulting in a 32-yard grab, Wright’s number was called to give the Gators a different look in the backfield. 

Wright did his best to make it count. 

With the ball at the Vanderbilt 35-yard line, Wright took the handoff and made one cut to his left before embarrassing Vanderbilt safety Maxwell Worship with a juke to the right that allowed the redshirt sophomore to get all the way to the Vanderbilt seven-yard line, wherein he was dragged down near the goal line, but not before extending the ball near the pylon. 

For a moment, it looked as if Wright had opened the scoring – it was close enough to bring the running back to his knees in the end zone – but replay determined Wright was just short of the goal line. 

“It was a good juke move,” he said. “But I have to finish in the end zone to get the team off the field. Those explosive plays have to turn into touchdowns. I just gotta continue to take advantage of those opportunities and get into the end zone.”

Rather than allow No. 6 a second shot at scoring his second six of the season, the Gators called on Dameon Pierce to punch it in from several inches out. Instead of blaming his teammate for “stealing” his touchdown, Wright shouldered the blame. 

“That’s my fault. I should have got in right there, put my head down,” he said. “I should have been a little faster and I would have got in. I just gotta finish those type of runs right there.”

It should be noted Pierce was captured on the sideline by television cameras immediately giving credit to Wright for the Gators’ early lead, but that doesn’t show up in the box score or go down in the play-by-play; what does is a 34-yard run from 35 yards out. 

Yet it was much too early for Wright to feel deflated. 

On UF’s next drive, he would get another chance and would rush three consecutive times, albeit for just nine yards. But on the final drive of the second quarter, the Gators got Wright involved in the pass game, and once again he proved capable of picking up chunks of yardage when his number was called. 

Jones found Wright open over the middle and connected with the shifty back, resulting in a 51-yard gain, a play the team spent considerable time on in the build-up to Saturday, said Wright. 

“We practiced it all week, so I just had to come out and execute. The O-line held their guys up. The quarterback delivered the ball,” Wright said. ”I just had to do the easy part: run a straight line and catch the ball.”

UF went up 21-0 three plays later on Whittemore’s nine-yard reception and took a three-score lead into the halftime break. 

Wright would tally 103 total yards through three quarters of play before making way for Demarkcus Bowman and Lorenzo Lingard to take over in the backfield and put the game away. 

Though neither of Wright’s highlight-reel plays went for touchdowns, Mullen felt as if he capitalized on the expanded role. Uncertainty remains over whether Davis will return against LSU or not, but Wright showed he’s more than capable of stepping up when needed  – even if the play doesn’t result in a touchdown. 

“Obviously, with Malik down this game, Nay'Quan had more opportunities,” Mullen said. “He came up and played pretty well.”