Gators Want Versatility in the Backfield

In recent years, the versatility in the Florida offense usually came from the wide receiver position, mostly from first round draft pick Percy Harvin. He was utilized in many ways from receiver to tailback to quarterback taking a quick snap from center. Look for that to change a bit. The running backs at Florida are a versatile group and will be asked to carry a bigger role in the Gator offense.

Gators' running back coach Kenny Carter has some talent and depth in '09 but he will see his group of players expand their roles outside of his tutelage in 2009. His returning ball carriers accumulated more than 1,600 rushing yards and averaged more than 7.6 yards per carry in the 2008 national championship season. In 2009, some of the group will be asked to catch the ball from a wide receiver position or line up wide and run reverses. A big key to the offensive production of the Gator offense in 2009 will be if the Gator running backs can use their skills and diversify their roles.

Carter knows that his backs will be leaned on in 2009 to take some of the burden of losing Harvin and fellow wide receiver and NFL draft pick Louis Murphy. Sophomores Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps had great freshmen years and the expectations have mounted for them. Now they need to show they can do more than just play the tailback position.

"That is our goal," Carter said in answering the assertion that his guys will be asked to carry a heavier load. "When you are fortunate enough to have two guys that were both freshmen All-SEC, and there were some good freshmen running backs in our league, it shows what everyone expects from them athletically. Now, we have to take it to another level and make sure when it comes to the mental aspect, we can add extra dimensions to our game plan without having to worry about everyone being on the same page...we want to line them up in different places and bring them back to the backfield or move them out or pass protect. That is the road we are going down and it can't veer off at any time with anybody."

There is no denying the athletic ability of the two speedsters. As a true freshman, Demps also showed he could pick things up rather quickly. Both are going to be pushed to add that spark in the offense this season and it should allow them to do even more than they have in seasons past.

"Jeff gives us everything you want as someone that can run inside, a good route runner, and he can handle everything mentally," Carter said. "Chris has to prove to us that from a mental capacity that he is ready to be steady consistently. If he will do that it will help him get more plays at that position and it will help us. That is what it comes down to. He has to buy in that he can do all those things all the time and we don't have to worry about where he's supposed to be or running the route he is supposed to run."

If there was a real issue with this group it has been their health. Rainey and Demps missed most of track season and parts of spring practice because of injuries. Carter says they are just about at full strength. Junior Emmanuel Moody is another that will be counted on and he also is nursing himself back to health. True freshman Mike Gillislee showed up ready to go and will be adding some serious weight before the season but is a very capable back that will play as a freshman.

"They're all getting back to pretty much 100 percent," Carter said. "Really, what happened with Chris and Jeff is that when you transition from football to track at the level they were competing at...they are very competitive so it created a couple of pulls that they didn't need to have because of the length of time it usually takes to build up to that level of competition. They have done a great job of rehabbing and Mickey Marotti has done a great job not rushing it."

For Moody, it's all about staying healthy and staying focused on helping the team, even when all isn't 100 percent. Carter said that Moody "is our best runner", but he has to be willing to play hard and play through adversity.

"If you are going to be a big time back, you are going to be nicked up," Carter said. "If you carry the ball over 100 times, you are going to be dinged up. If any of those guys carried the ball over 100 times they would be thousand yard rushers.

"He's always nursing injuries. He is one of those guys that always has a nick here or a nag there, it's always something. He has to push through that and force himself to play with a little nag."

Carter does understand Moody's talent and would not be surprised if he strung together a great season and played tough. He could be playing his last season in college with his NFL type running style and ability.

"If he has a good year, it wouldn't be a surprise if that was a consideration of his," Carter said. "He can graduate on time. If he has a solid year, who knows?"

Then there is the freshman. Unheralded throughout the recruiting process, Florida got on Mike Gillislee early. Of course other big time programs came calling down the stretch when they got word of him, but Carter is very happy with his new prospect at the position. Carter got a great perception of Gillislee from his first workouts with Florida strength and conditioning coach Mickey Marotti.

"When Mickey finished working with him he said he felt like athletically he is somewhere between Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey," Carter said. "Mike Gillislee is going to be a 200 pound guy in no time. He is big, strong, and athletic."

He doesn't plan on rushing Gillislee along and for now, he will just be utilized as a tailback in the offense and see how that goes. He and Moody are really the only two expected to play that tailback spot and only that spot.

"That is exactly what he will be initially," Carter said referring to Gillislee not playing receiver at all. "You have so many reps in practice and plays in a game to utilize people. You also have to remember in the slot, that there are other guys we have that can do great things. Certainly there is Brandon James and we are going to see what is going to happen with some of the young guys (Andre Debose)."

Of course the versatility of the group lends itself to a possibility of two of them being on the field at one time. Carter gets a grin on his face when he thinks about that. If two freshmen can average 7.8 yards per carry as lone tailbacks, what can they do when they are sophomores and double threats in the backfield?

"It gives us a little more versatility to be able to put Chris and Jeff in the slot and then back in the backfield including with two back sets and then empty to a one back set," Carter said. "We can run our base runs that we couldn't necessarily run with Percy."

One dynamic play maker in Percy Harvin leaves for the NFL and the Gators turn to their other resources to find a way to make things work at a high gear. Odds are that the success of this offense in 2009 will depend greatly on the versatility of the running back position. Kenny Carter wouldn't have it any other way.

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