Assessing Florida's Recruiting Options and Future at Running Back

Andrew Ivins - 247Sports

Brian Smith

First off, a look at the current Gators’ roster can lead one to many different conclusions. 

While the 2020 season will not begin with a sure-fire first round NFL tailback, at least the Gators possess an experienced running back returning with sophomore Dameon Pierce the most likely starter going into spring ball. 

He amassed 271 yards rushing this season, but there’s a more important statistic. Pierce averaged 5.6 yards per carry, a good average for the young player. In 2020, if Pierce can increase his workload to 150 carries from the 48 attempts this past season, Florida will then have its primary ball carrier. 

That is the question. Can Pierce (or another player) be the running back to carry the bulk of the load?

Possibilities like the one above are what drive college football coaching staffs to make really tough decisions. Do the Gators roll the dice and only take one running back within the 2020 recruiting class? Do they seek out a 220-pound bruiser from the transfer portal or the JUCO ranks? Does the Florida offensive coaching staff believe that Pierce can not only carry the football 150 times next season but also replace the 35 receptions, 219 yards and four touchdowns that soon to be departing senior Lamical Perine produced in 2019?

If not Pierce replacing that production, does a running back-by-committee approach need to be employed within the passing game? Well, two current Gators, at least, need to be mentioned.

How a Gator fan classifies junior Kadarius Toney would likely bring a plethora of answers. He’s one of the most versatile players on the Florida roster. While battling injury, 2019 saw Toney accumulate 58 rushing yards and 195 receiving yards. I, for one, believe Toney will be a bigger part of the 2020 offense and receive 10-15 from-scrimmage touches per game. He’s a dynamic athlete that simply needs to stay healthy.

Jet sweeps, screens, option pitches, and even wildcat plays make Toney a valuable player. Maybe Toney expands his role into playing some traditional running back as well. 

Don't forget about current freshman Nay’Quan Wright, either. After playing at Carol City High School in Miami, the 5-9, 195-pound talent knows competition. Spring practice will be the barometer of whether Wright learned the nuances of pass protection and the playbook, often the two biggest hurdles for young running backs. Still, he’s a very talented player. 

Will redshirt sophomore Malik Davis make a move this spring? His 2019 statistics included only 83 yards rushing from 33 carries, a paltry 2.5 yards per carry average and one touchdown, while also struggling with ball security. This spring will be important for him, or Wright and/or other running backs will likely pass Davis on the depth chart.

Also, will Iverson Clement stick with running back or will he experiment with the defensive side of the football like he did in 2018? Clement only carried three times for 48 yards this season. The redshirt freshman from Rancocas Valley HS (Mount Holley, NJ) seems to be the biggest unknown amongst the backup Gator running backs.

The Running Back Recruits

With Columbus HS (Miami, FL) running back Henry Parrish no longer committed to Pittsburgh, does Florida head coach Dan Mullen go all-in for the talented Dade County back? 

At 5-10, 180, Parrish should not be considered an every-down running back, especially at the SEC level. More importantly, does the addition of Parrish, assuming he picks the Gators, mean he’s the only running back recruit in Florida’s class? Parrish would certainly add an element of speed to the Gators' backfield.

Miami is almost always an option for players from Dade County. With that said, the Hurricanes picked up Deerfield Beach running back Jaylan Knighton and already had Miami (Belen Jesuit) running back Don Chaney, Jr. in the fold. 

Assuming both stick with Miami, the Hurricanes should not be considered a likely option for Parrish. However, that does not mean the Gators possess a clear path to sign Parrish.

Parrish visited Pittsburgh on June 14th, and South Carolina on September 27th. With schools like Missouri, Ole Miss, and Arkansas bringing in new coaching staffs, any one of them could go after Parrish, among other schools. He has yet to visit Florida officially. Keep an eye on Parrish, as he could be a key recruit down the stretch. He’s certainly clutch.

Parrish certainly finished his high school career with a bang, scoring the clutch touchdown to bring Columbus within one point of Apopka before Columbus converted the two-point conversion to win the 8A State Championship 21-20. 

Several other options on the board as well. Gators’ legend Emmitt Smith’s son, E.J. Smith, could be the running back the Gators sign. The Jesuit HS (Dallas, TX) running back officially visited Florida (Oct. 4) More recently, E.J. and his father trekked to Stanford for an unofficial visit to watch the Cardinal take on Notre Dame. 

Is Smith waiting for the dust to clear at Stanford before making a decision? There’s been quite a bit of turmoil in Palo Alto with numerous Cardinal players in the transfer portal. Maybe Smith is waiting to see if Stanford head coach David Shaw jumps to the NFL, as he’s always seemingly rumored (fair or not) to be doing. Texas A&M could be another option. He already visited Texas A&M on October 11th. We will all know soon enough, as Smith is expected to make his decision public this upcoming Wednesday. 

What about Dalton, GA product Jamyr Gibbs? 2,554 rushing yards. That’s what Gibbs ran for during the 2019 season, leading the state of Georgia. Although a Georgia Tech commitment, he’s been coveted by several programs. Alabama, Ohio State and Florida are schools that have gone after Gibbs very hard. 

Ohio State (Jan. 17), Florida (Jan. 24) and Georgia Tech (Jan. 31) are set for official visits. Alabama looms large and could receive an official visit as well.

Also, the transfer portal could lend the Gators a player. One just does not know until after signing day comes and goes. Anyone that thinks coach Mullen and staff will not at least listen to overtures from possible transfers or players committed elsewhere are mistaken. Especially in today’s age of college football, transfers and de-commitments are the norm. Even if Florida does not sign a running back this coming Wednesday, do not be surprised if the Gators sign one if not two running backs in February.

Off the Board?

As mentioned above, Knighton is committed to Miami. He was a prospect the Gators definitely liked a lot, but allegedly not quite as much as Carver HS (Atlanta, GA) running back Jo’Quavious Marks. However, Marks recently completed a visit to Starkville and reaffirmed his commitment.

As for the most popular target, it's unlikely that Lakeland HS product Demarkus Bowman flips from Clemson to Florida. Bowman has been considered a lock to Clemson since committing on May 3rd. While Florida never stopped recruiting Bowman, Clemson is likely where he will play college football.

Final thoughts

The Gators still have a major need for bodies at running back, after losing a workhorse in Perine to the NFL. It will be critical to get at least one more running back pledge come February's signing day or from the transfer portal before fall camp gets underway. Florida might not have hit on its original targets, but the Gators still have talented options out there.