UF backs have 'huge void' to fill, want to give offense more balance
As the Gators continue to prepare for a season unlike any other, Dan Mullen & Co. are working to fill the void left by Jets rookie running back Lamical Perine.
After splitting carries with Jordan Scarlett as a junior, Perine became Florida’s featured back last year and led the team with 676 rushing yards. He actually had less yards and two fewer carries than his 2018 total (826 yards on 134 rushes), but more than tripled his production as a pass catcher with 40 receptions for 262 yards and five touchdowns to go along with his six scores on the ground.
“Perine obviously left a huge void for us to fill there, but we keep working every day to fill that void to live up to expectations,” Florida running back Dameon Pierce said. “We running backs try to help out as much as we can in the running game and the pass game, as well as pass protection.
“In terms of pass protection, we all have been pushing each other to get better in that part of our game. Coach [Greg] Knox puts great emphasis on ball security and pass protection this year, more this year than any.”
The Gators struggled to get their run game going last year, with their season total (1687 yards) being more than 1,000 yards fewer than 2018 (2,771). However, their passing yardage increased by more than 1,000 with Kyle Trask at quarterback and they finished with 50 more yards of total offense (5,597) than the year before.
UF had its most balanced offensive game in the final outing against Virginia, finishing with 200-plus rushing yards (season-high 244) and 200-plus passing yards for only the second time in 2019.
“A strong running game can help any offense,” Pierce said. “That’s one thing that the O-line and the running backs have been working on this fall camp. We’re trying to get better to take a load off of Kyle, so we won’t be one dimensional. We want to be more balanced and become a better football team.”
Finding that balance has been “a big focus” for co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach John Hevesy, he said Tuesday. Despite the departure of Perine, Hevesy expressed confidence in Florida’s backfield and the one-two punch of Pierce and Malik Davis.
“I think we got a great stable of backs. Starting with, obviously, Pierce. He’s the first one,” Hevesy said. “I think the biggest one to watch has been Malik. He’s been injury plagued the first two years we were here.
“When we walked in here a couple years ago, you saw his film from that year before. We’re watching him during camp (now) and he’s that guy really that we saw two years ago. He's done a great job in camp.”
Pierce will take over at RB1 after rushing for 305 yards and four touchdowns last year. He edged Perine in average yards per carry, but wasn’t involved in the passing game and caught just four receptions for 30 yards. Pierce’s role and workload will increase this season, but Mullen said earlier this month he’ll use multiple backs.
One of them will be Davis, who appears poised for a bounceback year with his health and confidence returning. After an impressive freshman campaign totaling 526 rushing yards, season-ending injuries have kept his yardage below 100 the past two years. His coaches and teammates claim he has returned to his old form.
“Malik Davis is Malik Davis,” Pierce said. “Y’all saw his freshman year. He had a few minor setbacks, but I’ve seen him fight hard to get back to where he’s at. He has a chip on his shoulder and he has a lot to prove this year.”
“The injuries he had happen in back-to-back years, that’s tough on any football player. Malik tends to fight his battles very well. … He came to practice every day ready to work, ready to get better. He’s back to where he was. He never really left in my eyes.”
In addition to Pierce and Davis, the Gators return Nay’Quan Wright and Iverson Clement at the position and added Miami transfer Lorenzo Lingard Jr., a former five-star recruit who will be immediately eligible this fall. Pierce said Lingard, a track athlete at UM, brings “more firepower” and depth to the RB room.
“Obviously you’ve got Lorenzo, you've got Nay’Quan,” Hevesy said. “There is a great stable of backs back there. It’s been nice to watch them run the ball.”