Kim Klement / USA TODAY Sports

Gators' backs heat up in Del Rio’s Return

Quarterback Luke Del Rio’s first start in a month was made considerably easier by the display put forth by the running back position in #18 Florida’s (5-1, 3-1) 40-14 win over divisional-rival Missouri (2-4, 0-3). The effort was led by sophomore Jordan Scarlett and freshman Lamical Perine, who each eclipsed 100 yards on the evening.

After six quarters of very suspect play from the offense, Gator Nation was in unanimous joy at the news of the imminent return of Luke Del Rio earlier this week. The results graduate-transfer Austin Appleby produced in his two road starts were mixed at best and a close-to-healthy Del Rio currently offers the Gators their best chance of winning. Although a better physical specimen, Appleby clearly did not have the same handle on the playbook that Del Rio does and it showed in the limited play calling and execution that was on display in Del Rio’s absence. Florida Head Coach Jim McElwain spoke this week of allowing Del Rio time to work himself back into game speed and how his teammates could make things less complicated for him. Fortunately for the Gators, 287 yards on the ground goes a long way to easing the quarterback back into the rhythm of the game. Jordan Scarlett, who received the most carries on the night (12), was glad to have their leader back.

“It was great having him back,” gushed Scarlett over the redshirt-sophomore. “He was controlling the tempo of the offense, making sure that everyone was keyed in and doing their jobs.”

While his return was a success, it was clear in several of his throws that he is still nursing some tenderness in that leg. Del Rio’s average arm strength was not up to its usual zip tonight, as evident on his 3 interceptions, which easily could have been 5. On a different night that would have required Del Rio to win the game with his passing, a different result might have followed. Scarlett believes it is just a matter of time before the signal caller is back on top form.

“I just think he needed to get back into his groove a little bit,” replied Scarlett, who was asked about Del Rio showing rust in his return. “He was probably thinking about his knee, but overall I think he did a great job. It might be a mental thing with him just trying to protect it.”

Despite not being at the top of his game, Del Rio offered the offense more options that clearly opened up lanes for the runners. Scarlett discussed what having that part of the attack back can do to help the sputtering offense.

‘It kind of gives us some leeway,” replied Scarlett when asked how a deep threat can assist the ground game. “They might have the linebackers thinking that they have to bail out a little faster. It definitely gives us good opportunities to get some great runs in.”

Scarlet racked up over 100 yards for the first time in Orange and Blue against the Tigers. The running back was pleased with his effort, but gave credit where credit was due on the evening.

“It meant a lot,” beamed Scarlett at the mere mentioning of 100 yards. “It was definitely a long time coming. I was close last year; I think I had 99 yards in a game. A couple times this year, I got close, but I have to give props to the offensive line. They helped me get 100 yards and I’m blessed.”

False starts notwithstanding, the improved play from the line was notable. A very humble Scarlett continued to heap praise on the much-maligned unit.

“Definitely,” replied the sophomore from Fort Lauderdale when asked if this was the line’s best performance of the season. “We’ve been watching [Missouri] on film all week. We watched the LSU game, which was great. We saw how they flow hard to any runs that we did. We know the line have our backs and the offensive line did a great job of securing the line of scrimmage.”

Despite having runs of 29 and 33 (which went for a score) yards, Scarlett’s stat line could have been  even more dominant, save for one big mistake. The running back was responsible for the fourth and final turnover of the evening, fumbling mere inches away from a second touchdown. The running back did not shy away from the error, conceding that he has already heard plenty about it.

“I should have reached out with both hands,” stated Scarlett when asked what went wrong just short of the goal line. “I only used one hand and that is 100% on me. Next time, I will use two hands or just try and run through the defender.” When asked if Coach McElwain had spoken to him about it yet, a sheepish smile is all that you needed to see for the answer. “He got onto me about it, but not too hard. He just told be ‘ball security.’ I take full blame.”

Kim Klement / USA TODAY Sports

Freshman running back Lamical Perine, who also broke into triple-digit yards on the night, has burst onto the scene quickly in his Florida career. Perine is one of only six freshmen with multiple hundred-yard efforts and it is easy to see how gets into position to accomplish this. He has already achieved a cult-hero status amongst Florida fans for his powerful and determined runs. Scarlett clearly holds immense affection for the freshman from Birmingham, Alabama, as evident by his energy at the mention of his name.

“He did an awesome job! I like to call him a ‘fat boy’ because he kind of got caught at the end,” chuckled Scarlett, referring to Perine’s 59-yard scamper in the 4th quarter in which he was ran down from behind at the Mizzou 8-yard line. “I know he’s better than that and he should have scored. He’s going to get them next time. I love his passion and the way he runs.”

With a limited quarterback and shaky offensive line, the star-studded running back group that the Florida Gators possess this year will go a long way to determining if this team is able to accomplish the goals that they set out at the beginning of the season. Although Missouri is certainly not the cream-of-the-crop in the SEC, the Gators have been guilty of playing down to the level of the opponents on more the one occasion. This was not the case against the Tigers, as a thorough and comprehensive effort was on display despite not playing to their top level. This is in no small part due to the opportunities that ensue when your running backs average 7.4 yards-per-carry over the course of a game. Scarlett believes that the Gators are on the right track, but will have a lot to work on with the upcoming bye-week. 

“It feels good,” replied Scarlett when asked how it feels to be at the top of the East once again. However, the sophomore was quick to caution his teammates into believing the job is done. “I will stress to the team and the offense that we can’t get complacent. We can’t get comfortable. We have to do a better job of starting faster. We just have to get on it during the bye week.”


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