The numbers look good on paper for the Gators’ defense, but they haven’t seen a challenge anywhere close to what awaits them in Baton Rouge on Saturday. Tigers running back and Heisman Trophy favorite Leonard Fournette has already gone over 1,000 yards rushing in five games this season, an accomplishment only one Florida running back has earned in the last 11 seasons.
The statistics are eye-popping. The sophomore is averaging 8.6 yards per carry and already has 12 rushing touchdowns. His longest came on an 87-yard touchdown against South Carolina on Saturday where he ran away from the Gamecocks’ secondary.
"He's a nasty runner,” Florida linebacker Jarrad Davis said. “He's physical. He's the best athlete in the nation. He's going to be the Heisman winner, I think, just from seeing him on film compared to everybody else. He jumps out more than anybody else I've seen. Just nasty, physical runner. He likes to finish his runs. We've just got to make sure that we’ve all got to get to the ball and get him to the ground."
Easier said than done.
The Gators got a taste of Fournette’s ability last season. Then a true freshman, Fournette carried the ball 27 times for 140 yards and two touchdowns against the Gators in LSU’s 30-27 win in The Swamp. The Florida players have seen it while watching film, and Davis admitted it was tough to forget.
“You definitely remember it, but it's something that's definitely in the back of our heads,” Davis said. “It's not something we're trying to carry with us, but we know it can get ugly if we don't get him on the ground. He's a physical runner, one of the best backs in the nation, so we've got to make sure we take care of business."
The emphasis on tackling has been ramped up this week. The best running attack Florida has faced so far this season came against Tennessee, and the Gators didn’t tackle well, allowing Tennessee to run for 254 yards. Running back Jalen Hurd, who is a power runner in the mold of Fournette, ran for 102 yards and two touchdowns. The Gators couldn’t tackle him, and the sophomore running back bounced off Florida defenders to pick up extra yards.
The defense was embarrassed by the film and cleaned up the tackling in wins over Ole Miss and Missouri. The emphasis on tackling has been important again this week as they prepare to face a running back that doesn’t go down easily.
“He’s the best back in the league,” Florida defensive lineman Jonathan Bullard said. “We’re just going to have to rally to the ball and tackle him. He’s nothing that we can’t stop. But we all do have to rally to the ball because he’s an excellent matchup. (We have to) realize we've got to stop the run, 11 hats to the ball. We've been doing a good job of that but we've really got to be on top of it. When you get there, first man probably get him down, but if you can't, hold him up and I guarantee nine or 10 more going to come."
The depth of the Florida defensive line will also play a factor. Bullard said the Gators are rotating on the defensive line this year more than in recent seasons, and it’s allowing the players to stay fresh. Bullard said he has been frustrated at times when defensive line coach Chris Rumph takes him out on the goal line, but the linemen trust Rumph to put the team in the best position to be successful.
Their depth makes Florida the best run-stop defense the Tigers have faced so far.
“That’s a good matchup,” Bullard said. “It gives something to go out and fight for. We don’t want him to run through us and then everybody question if we’re the best. I believe that we are the best, and I think a lot of people do, too. As long as we play our game, rally to the ball and nobody tries to do anything extra to try to stand out or try to be the guy and just do your job like we’ve been doing and like we’ve been coached to do, we’re going to be fine.”