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Underrated: Florida Gator running back Jordan Scarlett

Scarlett is one of the best backs in the SEC.

NCAA Football: Outback Bowl-Florida vs Iowa Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The offseason talk concerning the Florida Gators offense is centering around who will be the starting quarterback. Will it be Notre Dame graduate transfer Malik Zaire or redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks who takes the field when the Gators take on the Michigan Wolverines on September 2?

While that is certainly a pressing issue, it is shadowing the fact that head coach Jim McElwain also needs to get the Gators run game going this year.

During McElwain’s first two seasons in The Swamp, the run game has played second fiddle to the passing attack. Last year, Florida ranked last in the SEC and 113th out of 128 FBS schools in rushing yards per game (128.23 yards). In spite of the lackluster statistics however, it does not mean Florida lacks talent at the running back position. In fact, the Gators may have one of the most underrated backs in the nation in junior Jordan Scarlett.

The 5-foot-10, 213-pound back may not be a household name, but he is getting the recognition he deserves this offseason, as he was one of 61 names listed on the Doak Walker Award watch list—an award given to the nation’s top tailback.

Although this was Scarlett’s first appearance on a preseason watch list, college football analysts have given him praise as well. The SEC Network’s Booger McFarland called Scarlett one of the premier backs in the SEC and is the player Florida’s offense should lean on 2017.

Now, to some, that claim may be outrageous. But after looking at Scarlett’s statistics, that take seems logical.

As the season wore on last year, Scarlett emerged as the main workhorse after splitting reps early in a four-back rotation with Jordan Cronkite, Lamical Perine and Mark Thompson. At the end of the season, Scarlett finished with 889 yards and six touchdowns on 179 carries—giving him an average of 5.0 yards per carry. The other three backs combined for 865 yards and four scores on 190 carries—an average of 4.6 yards per carry.

While Scarlett blossomed as the team’s best option out of the backfield last season, according to several advanced statistics, he may have proved to be the league’s toughest back to take down.

According to Pro Football Focus’ Austin Gayle, Scarlett led the SEC in percentage of yards gained after contact, with 75.4 percent of yards coming after the first initial hit.

Not only that, but Scarlett forced 50 missed tackles last season. That is the most forced missed tackles among returning Power 5 running backs with less than 200 carries in 2016.

Also according to Gayle, Scarlett averaged 3.75 yards after contact, which was the second-highest among draft-eligible SEC backs with 150+ carries.

With these variables, along with the fact that the Gators return four starters from last year’s offensive line, Scarlett should have a breakout season this year.

ESPN’s Edward Aschoff released an article highlighting eight backs from the SEC who can top 1,000 yards last month. On that list, Scarlett came in as No. 4. Aschoff highlighted Scarlett’s NFL type vision and quickness and an improved offensive line as main reasons why the third year back can finally top the 1,000 yard mark for the first time in his career.

After leading Florida in almost every statistical rushing category, an uptick in carries may be in Scarlett’s future. And for the first time in the McElwain era, the Gators have a solid offensive line returning this season. Plus, a strong presence in the backfield will be key to get the Gators’ passing attack going, regardless who starts under center. With that, Scarlett could have more opportunities to prove just how good he is to the nation in 2017.