For the past two years, Florida has finished near the bottom of the SEC in running the football. But through the first month of the 2017 season, the Gators are starting to find success on the ground. UF is rushing the ball for 191 yards per game against conference opponents, up 65 yards from the year before.
Who’s responsible for that production? More than 90 percent of UF’s rushing yards this season have come from four players: Malik Davis, Lamical Perine, Mark Thompson and Kadarius Toney. The Gators coaching staff has so many talented runners that it feels confident giving the ball to whomever has momentum.
“If a guy gets hot he’s going to stay in,” first-year running backs coach Ja’Juan Seider said this week. “We can just roll those guys out without hesitating.”
On Saturday, Florida’s backs will line up against one of the better run defenses in the SEC, an LSU Tigers team that’s coming into The Swamp reeling from a Homecoming loss of its own.
“These guys will be coming in here crazed, nuts, ready to go to prove all the naysayers (wrong),” UF head coach Jim McElwain said.
Florida's is just six days removed from its best rushing game of the season, running for a combined 218 yards and five touchdowns in a 38-24 win against Vanderbilt last weekend.
The Gators are looking to four playmakers to recreate that production on Saturday in a high-stakes Homecoming matchup.
Now, the Alligator re-introduces you to the runners to watch this weekend:
Lamical Perine lost his starting job before he really had it.
Coming into the season, the sophomore running back was primed to be Florida’s go-to guy in the backfield after the news that Jordan Scarlett was indefinitely suspended. But Perine flopped in Florida’s season opener against Michigan, running for just eight yards on seven carries. Two games later against Kentucky, Perine was given just five carries to freshman Malik Davis’ 21.
So UF running backs coach Ja’Juan Seider had a heart-to-heart with him after the game.
“I think a lot of guys are still feeling like ‘Hey, I have to show I can be the guy that can replace Jordan Scarlett,’” Seider said, “instead of just letting the game come to them.”
And by the time the Gators played Vanderbilt the next week, Perine didn’t look annoyed. Instead, he ran angry. On three separate plays, Vanderbilt defenders hit him. On all three plays, he scored anyway. After having not scored a touchdown since September 2016, the sophomore running back found the end zone three times in UF’s win against the Commodores last week.
“It felt real good,” Perine said.
Head coach Jim McElwain took notice.
“He elevated his play,” McElwain said. “Really showed what kind of runner I’ve been preaching this guy is.”
Perine became the first Gator to score three rushing touchdowns in a game since Jeff Driskel in 2012.
“When you start feeling the momentum, you have to keep going,” Perine said.
He’ll look to carry that momentum into The Swamp on Saturday against a Tigers defense that gave up about five yards per carry to Perine in last year’s meeting.
“I think he got back to being the Lamical we expect him to be,” Seider said. “He was more engaged. He was more demanding. … He responded.”
At the end of a 72-yard run, Malik Davis saw the scoreboard, the fans, the end zone in front of him and to his right. But he didn’t see the Tennessee defender on his left, who stripped the ball from Davis, forcing a fumble feet from the goal line.
“It was heartbreaking,” Malik’s mother, Angel Davis, said. “I literally wanted to cry.”
After the game, his family waited for him outside the locker room. And they kept waiting. UF receiver Daquon Green, also from the Tampa area, told Davis’ family that Davis didn’t want to talk to anyone.
Eventually, Malik appeared. And one week later, he emerged again, this time as UF’s main back in a win against Kentucky. He rushed for 93 yards on 21 carries, enough touches to make it clear that the coaches weren’t going to hold his fumble against him. Against Vanderbilt, he was given the bulk of the carries again, rushing for 124 yards and two touchdowns.
“He’s about as natural as you will see running with the ball,” running backs coach Ja’Juan Seider said. “He’s not even scratching the surface yet on how good he can be.”
Davis is only four games into his career at UF and is already showing why he turned heads in high school. At Tampa’s Jesuit High School, he set the county rushing record and averaged 8.5 yards per carry. He’s still averaging more than seven yards per carry at UF, and he’s one of only two SEC running backs with at least 40 carries to do so.
The Gators running back Lamical Perine, has seen Davis’ talent since he stepped on campus. And now, he says it’s time for everyone to see.
“The nation should know about Malik Davis,” Perine said.
From the moment he arrived in Gainesville one year ago, Mark Thompson hasn’t shied away from speaking his mind.
It’s who he is. It’s what he does.
The 6-foot-2 running back from La Mott, Pennsylvania, came to Florida last season as a junior college transfer with no experience playing Division 1 football, much less in the SEC.
But as he met with reporters on a hot summer day in August 2016, he didn’t hold back from making a bold statement.
“It’s my goal to have 1,000 yards by the bye week,” Thompson said one month prior to UF’s season opener. “There is no way in the world I would joke about something like that.”
As he soon found out, however, it wasn’t that easy. Not even close.
Thompson struggled mightily in his first year as a Gator, totaling only 299 yards, two touchdowns and two fumbles. After notching a season-high 85 yards against North Texas on Sept. 17, 2016, he’d only run for 20-plus yards one more time over Florida’s final 10 games.
It was a forgettable debut campaign for the 239-pound back.
Now, as a redshirt senior, Thompson is still trying to prove he’s capable of generating the numbers he claimed he could. And it’s started with the help of running backs coach Ja’Juan Seider.
“I told him, ‘Look, I don’t judge you on what you did last year,’” Seider said. “We worked on what I felt like we needed to work on.”
Thompson hasn’t received as many opportunities as underclassmen Malik Davis and Lamical Perine have through UF’s first four games of 2017, but he has managed to record 81 rushing yards on 24 carries, as well as 53 receiving yards on seven catches.
It's a small sample size, but his production in limited reps hasn't gone unnoticed by his teammates.
“Mark is a work horse. He’s a very big dude and he runs with a lot of power,” receiver Freddie Swain said. “He’s a good back.”
He drops back in the pocket. Looking downfield, he sees no one and steps up. He looks some more, cocks his arm and lowers it. Still nothing.
He darts right and finds two defenders waiting. He stops his progress and steps back, leaving them lying on the turf before cutting toward the sideline.
This is Kadarius Toney, UF’s star freshman who played quarterback at Blount High School near Mobile, Alabama. He played quarterback in UF’s spring game, too, dashing his way to a game-best 74 yards and establishing himself as a potential playmaker.
Not wanting to lose that ability by burying him on the quarterback depth chart, UF’s coaches moved him to a new position — athlete — in the summer.
The name is fitting, because Toney really isn’t a quarterback, receiver or, despite being featured in this story, a running back. He’s something else. And he’s the only one.
Nobody else on UF’s roster is called “athlete.” Because nobody else has thrown for 50 yards, rushed for 66 and amassed 107 more through the air this season.
That gift for making plays across the field was apparent to his pastor, Benjamin Torrance Sr., since before Toney moved to Florida.
He said even in an area that produces elite athletes, Toney was a standout, and not just because of his ability to make defenders miss.
Torrance said he’s also very smart compared to other players his age.
“I would be proud if he was my son,” Torrance said.
He’s also quiet. Torrance, pastor of God’s Kingdom Church Ministries, who’s known Toney for 10 years, said his flashy play masks a quiet personality. With that in mind, leave it to teammate CeCe Jefferson to explain Toney’s abilities.
“That boy got a create-a-player name,” he said, referencing the feature in sports video games where players are created and given top attributes.
Even though he’s not a running back, Toney was included on this list because he’s rushed for the fourth-most yards on the team and scored a rushing touchdown.
That’s thanks to special packages designed for Toney, where he takes a direct snap and uses the same skills that made him potent in high school.
“There’s something that’s pretty cool,” coach Jim McElwain said, “about having a human joystick out there.”