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Florida's Rushing Game and Tradeoffs

Florida's running game has fallen off a cliff over the last four games.
Florida's running game has fallen off a cliff over the last four games.

One of the biggest questions raised from the beginning of Charlie Weis' tenure in Gainesville was whether Florida was going to be able to run the ball well. While Weis has had plenty of success in the running game in the NFL, none of his Notre Dame teams were particularly adept at moving the ball on the ground.

Before the season, Weis declared that running backs Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps are the fastest players he's ever coached. With Demps a certified world-class sprinter and anecdotal evidence pointing to Rainey being in the same neighborhood, it's not an unreasonable claim. That said, neither player is all that big. Rainey is listed at 5'9", 174 lbs, and Demps is listed at 5'7", 191. From what I've seen and heard, some of those measurements might be generous.

That kind of running back is not tailor made for an NFL-style rushing system in the SEC. Florida's running game worked well in the first four games against weaker opponents, with Rainey and Demps turning in a combined five 100-yard games. The Gators even ran for over 400 yards on Kentucky. Over the last four contests against much stiffer competition, the run game has almost petered out entirely. For two and a half of the four games, opponents keyed on the run as UF's freshman quarterbacks failed to move the ball effectively through the air. Last week against UGA, Florida attempted just 15 runs in 56 total plays.

The lack of an effective rushing game is a point of frustration to many Gator fans, who ask to see a third option at the position: Mike GIllislee. At 5'11", 198 lbs, he's a much bigger back than Rainey or Demps. He has a cult following in the fan base built around his hard running style. He had a breakout performance against LSU, rushing nine times for 56 yards (6.2 average). He had just three carries each against Alabama and Auburn, though he missed the Georgia game due to an undisclosed injury.

So Georgia game injury aside, what gives?

I don't know precisely how Weis evaluates his running backs, but I suspect a lot of it has to do with risk and reward. That's something I took a look at a bit towards the end of the off season.

Rainey and Demps are classic boom-or-bust backs. While they may not always gain a lot of yards on a down-by-down basis, they have the speed to take it the distance if they catch a crease. You saw that on Saturday on the first play of the game when Demps took what appeared to be a routine screen pass 72 yards thanks to some key blocks.

The main case to be made for Gillislee is that, while he doesn't have the high-end speed that Rainey and Demps do, he has been more reliable in avoiding bad plays. Thanks to declining numbers of running plays, the following data could have some sample size issues. However, here is some basic information on the rushing distribution for the three backs over the Gators' four-game losing streak:

Player Avg. Rush Median Rush Boom Pct. Bust Pct.
Rainey 2.52 2.00 2.17% 28.26%
Demps 1.23 1.00 0.00% 30.77%
Gillislee 5.07 5.00 0.00% 13.33%


Boom percentage is the percentage of total rushes that went for 20 or more yards. Bust percentage is the percentage of total rushes that went for no gain or a loss.

It's an important caveat to mention that Gillislee only has 15 rushes in the four-game span, with nine of them coming against LSU after the team was already down big. That said, Rainey and Demps lost their effectiveness entirely over the last third of the year. Rainey's one boom play was a 25 yard rush against LSU, and it was one of just three rushes of even 10 yards he's had in this span. Demps hasn't had any runs of at least 10 yards in this span. What's worse is that while they've lost their boom potential entirely, their bust rates have climbed to about three in 10. That's really bad. Their season-long success rates have plummeted as well.

After Gillislee's performance against LSU, the coaches promised that he'd see more playing time. Weis said, "Will he get on the field more? Yes, he will get on the field more." Will Muschamp said, "He's a guy we need to get some more touches." He got just three carries at Auburn the following week. Based on previous usage patterns, it's likely Gillislee only got the carries he did against the Bayou Bengals because Demps couldn't play more than a few snaps in the first quarter.

Muschamp said he expects Gillislee to be full speed as of tomorrow, so we'll see if Weis fulfills his post-LSU promise this weekend against Vanderbilt. With the Commodores possessing the second-most interceptions in the conference, success on the ground will be vital this coming weekend. Will Weis continue to throw the boom-or-bust dice by riding Rainey and Demps all game, or will he sacrifice some potential big yardage plays for the sure gains that Gillislee provides?

Either way, Florida had better find its September rushing success again, or else it'll be staring at a deeper abyss than anyone thought possible before the season.