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Who will emerge in Gators running game? Billy Napier could develop a committee approach

Kevin Brockway
Gator Sports
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Florida coach Billy Napier wants to establish the run in his first season at the helm.

How the Gators go about it remains to be seen.

At Louisiana last season, Napier had four different running backs carry the ball 100 times or more. A similar by-committee approach could evolve at UF based on how running backs have performed so far in camp.

“We've got some guys in that room that can play winning football,” Napier said. “I think even the young freshman has shown flashes. So, I think we've got four players that we trust. I think all those guys are smart. I think they're all dependable. They've got maturity.”

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Who will emerge at Gators' top rusher? 

Florida Gators running back Lorenzo Lingard (21) runs a drill during practice Aug. 15 at the Sanders Outdoor Practice Fields on the University of Florida campus in Gainesville.

Nay’Quan Wright, who emerged late last season to gain 326 yards on 4.3 yards per carry with one TD, returns as UF’s leading rusher at running back. But Wright has been pushed in camp by Louisiana transfer Montrell Johnson, who rushed for 838 yards and 12 TDs last season for the Rajun Cajuns on 5.2 yards per carry. At 5-foot-11 and 210 pounds, Johnson was tough to bring down in the Sun Belt Conference but considers himself more than just a back who can run between the tackles.

“I can do it all,” Johnson said. “I think I can run outside, make moves, be a bruiser at times. I think I’ll surprise a lot of folks.”

Lorenzo Lingard, a former five-star recruit and Miami transfer, will get another chance to display his potential. Freshman running back Trevor Etienne, the younger brother of former Clemson standout and current Jacksonville Jaguars running back Travis Etienne, also has shown flashes in practice.

“To say that we’re competing, it doesn’t really seem like it,” Johnson said. “We’re all cheering each other on, trying to make sure each other knows the playbook, trying to make sure everyone is making the right cuts off a play. It’s not really like a competition.”

Johnson compares his rushing style to former Tennessee and current New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara.

“Kind of patient and can catch it out of the backfield and make people miss,” Johnson said.

Florida Gators running back Trevor Etienne (7) runs with the ball during Week 3 of football practice at Sanders Outdoor Practice Fields in Gainesville on Aug. 16.

Etienne has impressed coaches with his work ethic. Napier said the freshman from Jennings, Louisiana, could be involved as a return man on special teams as well.

"There’s no question we made a good decision there," Napier said. "Was familiar with him having evaluated him at Louisiana. The guy's 5-8 and three-quarters and he weighs 207 pounds. He’s loose, got a low center of gravity, catches the ball. I think he's got some returner value. So the big thing with him is his character, his consistency. The guy shows up and works." 

How will Anthony Richardson fit into the run game?

Another aspect to the run game is quarterback Anthony Richardson, who gained 401 yards on 7.9 yards per carry with three rushing TDs. The 6-foot-4, 236-pound Richardson can make plays with his legs, but the question remains how selective Napier will be in exposing his starting quarterback to hits from physical SEC defenders.

“We're going to play to his strengths, right? The guy’s a phenomenal athlete,” Napier said. “He can make plays with his feet, some of those being designed, some of those being a threat and some of those are unannounced. And I think the key here is that he makes the right decision. And I think a lot of that is going to be determined dependent on our situation at that position. But there's no question we’re going to use Anthony’s legs. It's got to be a part of who we are and what we do.”

With up to five different options to run the football, Napier said he’s looking for his running backs to develop into complete backs, capable of running the football, picking up blitzes in blocking and catching passes out of the backfield. Screen passes to running backs have been a daily staple of individual drills in practice.

“Those guys have been productive on a consistent basis,” Napier said. “Running back sometimes gets overlooked in all that they do for the team: protection, catching the ball and certainly rushing the ball. That’s a good room. We'll find out how good when we get to game setting.” 

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