Gators finally feature the lethal rushing attack they envisioned
Gators coach Urban Meyer finally has a frightening rushing attack at his disposal
Only Oregon and Nevada average more yards per rushing attempt than Florida
Overflowing backfield speed allows Florida to create favorable mismatches
FT. LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- For three-plus seasons, Florida coach Urban Meyer and offensive coordinator Dan Mullen attempted to run their preferred spread-option offense while lacking one of the most critical ingredients: A tailback.
Now they have more than they know what to do with.
The face of the Gators' offense -- not to mention its run to Thursday's BCS Championship Game -- took shape during the fourth quarter of an otherwise uneventful 38-7 win at Arkansas on Oct. 4. A week earlier, Florida had suffered an embarrassing 31-30 home loss to Ole Miss, one that continued a familiar pattern from recent years: QB Tim Tebow and WR Percy Harvin accounted almost entirely for the Gators' rushing attack. An offense intended to keep opponents off balance had become increasingly predictable.
Against the Razorbacks, however, Meyer and Mullen finally unleashed speedy freshmen Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey -- and the results were spectacular. Rainey finished with 10 carries for 103 yards, including a 75-yard fourth quarter touchdown. Demps also netted 103 yards, coming on seven carries, the last of them a 48-yard touchdown burst in the final minute.
"We finally got a chance to show our talent -- so we showed our talent," said Rainey, who redshirted last season. "That just changed everything."
In the seven games between that trip to Fayetteville and the Dec. 6 SEC Championship Game, the Gators never scored fewer than 42 points in a contest. (They beat Alabama 31-20.) They finished the regular season with the nation's 11th-ranked rushing offense, averaging 229.8 yards per game, and they did it with five different players gaining at least 400 yards.
While Tebow carried a team-high 154 times (down from 210 last season) for 564 yards, Rainey led the team with 655 yards on 83 attempts (7.9 yards per carry), followed by Demps' 582 yards on 69 carries (8.4). Harvin, who missed two games, rushed 61 times for 538 yards (8.8), while USC transfer Emmanuel Moody gained 417 yards on 57 carries (7.3).
Only two teams, Oregon and Nevada, average more yards per rushing attempt than the Gators (6.0).
"Coming into the season, Emmanuel Moody had never played for us, Chris Rainey had never played for us and Jeff Demps had never played for us," said Mullen. "We thought, 'OK, these guys are going to be some future playmakers,' but we didn't know in the short term where they would be. They kind of exploded on the scene, and once they did, they got us to where we are now."
Meyer pledged when he came to Gainesville four years ago to turn Florida into the "fastest team in the country," and nowhere is that more apparent than in the running game. Demps, Rainey and Harvin are all former high-school track stars. (Demps set a national-record in the 100-meter dash when he ran a 10.01 quarterfinal at last spring's U.S. Olympic Trials.) All three have been clocked between 4.24 and 4.32 in the 40-yard dash.
Asked if he's ever faced a team with as much speed in its backfield, Oklahoma defensive coordinator Brent Venables replied: "Not even close."
That speed allows Meyer to accomplish his primary offensive goal of "creating [bad] matchups and getting guys in open space," thus creating the big plays. But what makes Florida's rushing attack that much more dangerous is that its runners aren't just fast -- they're physical.
At 5-foot-8, 176-pounds, Demps may seem dainty, but in the SEC title game, with both Harvin and Rainey hurt, the freshman repeatedly ran between the tackles, grinding out yardage. Rainey (5-9, 185) and Harvin (5-11, 195) do much the same thing.
"I don't really consider myself a track guy," said Demps. "I've been playing football since I was 5. I always ran in between the tackles. It doesn't matter whether you're running to the sideline or up the middle, a run's a run."
Obviously, that wouldn't be as feasible in a traditional, power-I running attack, but with their shotgun formations and wide line splits, the Gators' offense produces running lanes for its assortment of slashers to cut inside. They can also get to the edge, however, on option pitches and end-arounds.
"They're very multi-dimensional in their run game," said Venables. "They're not just a perimeter team. They can go downhill on you in a heartbeat, and they do it a lot, and of course they've got as good of skill as there is on their perimeter run game. That makes it very hard to defend."
Now that we've seen just how dangerous a running team the Gators can be, the question begs to be asked: What took them so long?