Is Florida’s offense actually better or is it a mirage?
Remember when it looked as if Florida was destined for another dismal season on offense? When the team scored just three offensive points against Michigan, it looked as though this would be another long season in which complaints about the offense would soar to an all-time high. However, since that miserable performance, the Gators’ offense has slowly begun to pick up steam, thanks in part to three crucial areas: improvement in the run game, the inclusion of Kadarius Toney as a Swiss Army knife, and growth of the offensive line.
Heading into the 2017 season, the run game was expected to be a strength behind incumbent starter Jordan Scarlett. But with Scarlett facing a slew of legal issues, head coach Jim McElwain was forced to suspend him indefinitely and find another option in the backfield. Using the next man up, backup Lamical Perine was named the starter to begin the year with Mark Thompson serving as the team’s second option.
That duo proved to be ineffective against both a stout Michigan front and Tennessee, combining for just 106 yards and an average of just 3.53 yards per carry. However, it was in that Tennessee game that Florida found the spark it had been looking for in the run game. In the fourth quarter of the game, freshman Malik Davis busted out a 74-yard run that was Florida’s longest play from scrimmage this season. Although Davis would fumble right before he reached the goal line, that run was enough to spark the ground game after that.
Since then, Davis has become the focal point of the Gators’ offense. He has been the feature back over the past two weeks against Kentucky and Vanderbilt, with Perine and Thompson playing the supporting cast. These last two games have shown Davis’ true ability as a playmaker—over both weeks, the freshman rushed for 217 yards and two touchdowns, averaging 5.7 yards per carry. On the season, he’s had five plays in which he’s rushed for over 10 yards and two that have gone over 20, including a 39-yard touchdown run against Vanderbilt to seal the deal.
Davis is the first Florida freshman to rush for over 100 yards and score two touchdowns since Jeff Demps did it in 2008. If he continues on his current pace, Davis would be the first Florida freshman to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark since Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith. Currently, Davis ranks fourth among first-year freshmen backs, behind Ohio State’s J.K. Dobbins (573), Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor (519), and Baylor’s John Lovett (321).
|Name||School||Games Played||Rushing Yards||Yards Per Carry|
|J.K. Dobbins||Ohio State||5||573||7.64|
Overall, the rushing game has improved greatly since the speedy Davis has come into the picture. As a whole, the Gators have rushed for 404 yards since the true freshman has been promoted to the top of the depth chart, scoring seven rushing touchdowns in the process. Now that Florida has reestablished the run game as a strength, it should help take even more pressure off of Feleipe Franks.
Kadarius “Give Me the Ball” Toney
One thing that Florida has never been short on is talent at the skill positions. The Gators have always had talented running backs and receivers, but have had trouble finding a way to get them the ball. However, in the case of versatile true freshman Kadairus Toney, the Gators don’t seem to have that issue.
Toney, a quarterback during his high school days, was recruited as a 3-star athlete by the Gators. McElwain failed to name a true position for the multitalented Toney because of his ability to practically play anywhere on offense. During Florida’s spring game, Toney played at quarterback and showed electrifying ability as dual-threat spread option passer, using his legs to speed past defenders. Of course, McElwain prefers a true passer under center, so Toney was forced to find a new position.
So where do you put a guy that has Toney’s talent? How about everywhere. Toney has become Florida’s not-so-secret weapon over the course of the last three games. In those games, Toney has caught nine passes for 80 yards, rushed six times for 66 yards, and completed one pass for 50 yards. It’s easy to see that when Toney has the ball in his hands, good things happen.
Toney’s greatest impact has come in Florida’s version of the Wildcat package, or as McElwain refers to it, the “Gator” package. In one such instance against Kentucky, Toney lined up at quarterback in the shotgun and took the snap. Running back Mark Thompson proceeded to hit a huge block, clearing a path for Toney to scamper past two more defenders on his way to a 36-yard score.
He’s also caused plenty of trouble when he splits out wide as a receiver. Usually the go-to guy on screens, Toney is able to get it out into open space and make people miss like he did against Tennessee.
However, it’s in this spot too that Florida can run some gadget plays with Toney in an end-around pass like the one he completed against Kentucky. Skip to 1:35 in this clip to see the jaw-dropping play.
Although finding him more touches might be tough, McElwain thinks it’s a good problem to have.
“I’m not sure it’s a challenge, it’s kind of like having a toy,” he said. “That’s a fun thing,
not a bad thing.” - Jim McElwain, courtesy of 247Sports
Getting the ball in Toney’s hands is a must for the Gators’ offense to be successful the rest of the way. Regardless of the way they choose to get him the ball, whether it be through designed runs, receptions, or passes, Toney is a key to making this offense electric.
Growth of the Offensive Line
One of the aspects that has plagued Florida’s offense over the past five seasons is sub-par offensive line play. Since 2012, Florida has only ranked above 71st once in sacks allowed and hasn’t ranked above 48th in tackles for loss allowed. But coming into the 2017 season, the offensive line had been heralded as a strength for the Gators. A mix of strength, size, and experience had this line primed to finally give McElwain the offense that he so desperately needed.
Was Toney supposed to block No. 24? No. 9 blowing right past Taylor doesn’t matter as much if he did. pic.twitter.com/bl3GdEmh0c— David Wunderlich (@Year2) September 3, 2017
However, after getting manhandled by Michigan in the season-opener, the offensive line looked like it would be a hindrance once more. The line was pushed around and beaten up badly by a big and tough Wolverine defensive front. Florida’s line was punished for 11 tackles for loss, six sacks, and five quarterback hurries. It was a performance that the players and coaches quickly needed to move on and learn from. They have done just that.
In the three games since that gut punch, what was once disappointment has now turned into hope and confidence. Florida’s line has started to show what the coaches were bragging about during the offseason. The unit has given up just four sacks and 12 tackles for loss since the Michigan debacle, allowing the offense to run the way McElwain intended it to. With the growth of the line, the running game has started to take off, rushing for 572 yards, while averaging nearly five yards per carry.
On top of that, the improvement in the line has allowed redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks to stay upright. Giving a young QB like Franks plenty of time to make decisions in the pocket has allowed him to make better reads and hit the right receiver. As such, Franks has been able to complete 64% of his passes since his debut against Michigan. The more time Franks has to survey the field, the better it will be for his development until he can make the proper pre-snap reads.
With Florida’s offensive line starting to get the push that McElwain has been looking for since he got here, there’s a good chance the rest of the offense will start to come together. Guard Brett Heggie was named SEC Offensive Lineman of the Week for his performance against Vanderbilt after he helped pave the way for Florida’s run game which rushed for a season-high 218 yards against the Commodores. If that’s any indication of where this line is headed, then Florida’s offense should continue to make vast improvements.
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