VETTEL: Assessing the Running Back Situation

Going back to ten days before spring practice even got underway; Urban Meyer has been challenging his running backs to impress him. In this final week of spring ball, the Gator head man has yet to see that happen. At times DeShawn Wynn, Markus Manson and Kestahn Moore look like top flight talents; but at other times they come up short.

Unless something changes, or incoming freshman Mon Williams raises the bar dramatically Florida could be looking at another three or four-headed tailback situation. It's even gotten to the point where Billy Latsko has gotten playing time at tailback this spring, though he'll be at is more familiar fullback spot come August.

It's not as if Florida cannot survive with what sufficed as the tailback rotation a year ago. Wynn, Manson and Moore combined for 1,263 yards and ten touchdowns last season, averaging almost 4.9 yards a carry. They also teamed up for 34 receptions for another 272 yards and three more scores. That's not exactly terrible production from the backfield.

It's just not what the head coach has in mind.

Gators History is Mixed

Through the years the Florida football program has had a number of great running backs who have had phenomenal seasons. The Gators have also had some great seasons where no running back stood out or enjoyed a dominant campaign. The greatest three-year run in the history of the school offensively was from 1994 through '96. No Gator running back managed a 1,000-yard season in that stretch.

The best running team UF ever had was in 1984 behind the "Great Wall" offensive line. As good as Neal Anderson, John L Williams and Lorenzo Hampton were that year, none managed to reach the 1,000 yard plateau.

Truth be told, Florida's great individual rushing seasons were among the ore disappointing campaigns overall. Emmitt Smith ran for almost 4,000 yards in three seasons (1987-89) but the Gators had to settle for a 20-and-16 record. Fred Taylor ran for 1,292 yards in '97 but that year saw the end of the Gators' four-year run of SEC Championships. Ciatrick Fason raced for 1,267 yards in 2004, all for a 7-and-5 ball club. Further back, Jimmy DuBose set the school record with 1,307 yards in 1975 but that couldn't lift the Gators to an SEC Title.

Perhaps the best combination of a Gator season and an individual having a great season at running back came in 1993. That year Errict Rhett broke Emmitt's school career rushing record on his way to a 1,289 yard campaign for the Gators SEC Champs.

Coach Drayton Offers Update

Earlier this week I spoke with Stan Drayton about his runners, the progress they have made, or haven't made this spring and the chances of Mon Williams getting into the mix this fall.

LV: Coach Meyer really threw down the gauntlet to the running backs at the start of spring practice. How do you feel they've responded?

SD: They still need to learn how to respond to that. That's kind of their weakness. Coach is definitely hitting their weakness head on in terms of coping with adversity and getting tougher. It's a definite learning process. We're going to continue try to figure out who our guy is going to be and they know they have to get better. As long as they come to that realization we have a starting point and we're definitely going to get there.

LV: Was Saturday's scrimmage one of the better days Markus has had in terms of responding to that challenge?

SD: Actually I would say it was NOT one of his better days. You saw a couple of break out runs here and there, but playing running back is not about just getting into the open field. It's about every down type of play. What are you doing in pass protection? What are you doing when you're tired? What is your demeanor in the huddle? How fast are you getting off the ground when you get tackled? Those are some of the things that come into play, and that demeanor is not there yet.

LV: How is DeShawn doing along that line?

SD: DeShawn has made some progress there's no question. He's trying to be tougher. He's a guy that you hear people on this team say, "we want him in the ball game" and that's the ultimate compliment. But he still has a ways to go. The thing is, DeShawn realizes that now, and that's half the battle right there. You gotta realize that you're not quite there yet and you have to come to work every day and you've got to give it up from start to finish.

LV: Is that part of why Billy Latsko has gotten snaps at tailback lately?

SD: Billy Latsko is the no-brainer of the group. He's the leader and a guy who whether he's on the field or off the field is working his butt off. We wanted to see what kind ball carrier he was, because we know what kind of fullback he is. We think he's the best fullback that any of us as coaches has ever been around. Now we wanted to see if we could broaden his game, and when he gets back to his position after getting this experience he'll be that much better at fullback. And it lets us see if we want to expand our offense and if we want to give the ball to the fullback.

LV: Is there any frustration with DeShawn since he has shown flashes of brilliance throughout his three years here?

SD: There's frustration in the group as a whole, but not necessarily DeShawn. We talk about talent, yes there's talent in that group, but there always has been. Now the question that needs to be answered is, "Why aren't we reaching our full potential?" It's the intangibles of toughness and work ethic on a daily basis. Those are the things we have to work on.

LV: Are they leaving a window of opportunity open for Mon Williams?

SD: Mon Williams is a rookie that we really don't know anything about right now. We know that he's a talented football player and he runs a 10.51 (hundred meters) and he's still in high school. Can he come in here and learn this offense and play SEC football? We don't know that yet. But, yes the window of opportunity is open for anybody who will come in here and do what we want them to do. That's protect the football, protect the quarterback and compete with toughness on a daily basis. We're still looking for that guy. Right now it's like we're putting pieces together. I sew a little bit of the rug here and I put a different color of the rug there. But I'm looking for that one guy who is going to be able to do it all. I got pieces, but I don't have the whole puzzle yet.

I agree with the mindset that the ideal situation is for a team to have a clear, established number one back who will do it all for you as a runner, receiver, blocker and leader. But I suspect that one guy will not emerge in 2006. Still as illustrated above, you can have a great offense and successful team with running back by committee.

Florida has finished atop the SEC standings nine times since 1984, though three of those teams ('84,'85,'90) are not officially recognized. Of the nine squads, only three ('85,'91,'93) had an individual running back reach the 1,000 yard mark. Additionally neither of Florida's SEC Title game losers ('92,'99) had a guy reach 1,000 either.

The point is that a top flight, clear number one running back may be a good thing to have, but it guarantees nothing. Running back by committee may be something a team has to settle for, but it doesn't have to be a handicap.

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