Here’s how Florida can improve its running back room heading into 2022

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Under coach Dan Mullen in 2019 and 2020, the run game was a bit of an afterthought. The team had talent at the position, but offensive line struggles limited the rushing effectiveness, and Dameon Pierce and Malik Davis had to take a back seat to a stellar passing offense led by quarterback Kyle Trask.

With Trask gone in 2021, though, the team shifted gears completely. New quarterback Emory Jones struggled to pass the ball but was effective with his legs, opening the door for an option-based offense that worked very well at the beginning of the season. At one point, Florida had the best non-service academy rushing attack in the country.

But things tapered off as the team struggled down the stretch, and Mullen was fired. New coach Billy Napier is also known as a quarterback guru, but watching his offenses at Louisiana, it’s clear that the run game is a major part of his offensive philosophy.

Pierce and Davis are likely gone, though both seniors technically do possess an extra year of eligibility as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Assuming they choose not to use it, the cupboard is still far from bare. The team still has Nay’Quan Wright, who saw a fairly big role this year before suffering a season-ending injury against Florida State, as well as a pair of former five-star transfers in Demarkcus Bowman and Lorenzo Lingard. Neither saw much action this year, but they will almost certainly have expanded roles if Pierce and Davis declare.

Here’s how the future of the position could look.

NEXT: Prep Recruiting

Prep recruiting:

Florida originally had a four-star running back commit in Winter Park product Terrance Gibbs, but Gibbs decommitted on Nov. 30 after UF’s final game of the regular season against Florida State. The Gators could theoretically still be in the mix for him, but he is expected to sign with Texas.

Assuming Gibbs is no longer an option, there are essentially two key players Florida will be looking at: TreVonte’ Citizen and Trevor Etienne. Citizen is from Lake Charles, Louisiana, and was once committed to the in-state LSU Tigers. However, he backed off his pledge on Nov. 28, and he was one of the first players offered by the new UF staff. He’s expected to visit Florida when the dead period ends, and the team could be in a good position to land him.

Meanwhile, Etienne — the younger brother of former Clemson star and 2021 first-round pick for the Jacksonville Jaguars, Travis — is from Jennings, Louisiana, and is expected to announce his commitment at the All-American Bowl in San Antonio on Jan. 8. He’s already taken two previous unofficial visits to Gainesville.

With Gibbs likely out of the picture, it’s imperative that UF land at least one of these two prospects.

NEXT: Transfer Portal

Transfer portal:

Considering Florida expects to return at least three scholarship running backs and add at least one freshman in Citizen and/or Etienne, finding a transfer portal running back may not be a top priority for Napier compared to other positions of need. The top running back available in the transfer portal was former Georgia Tech star Jahmyr Gibbs, and though Florida recruited Gibbs initially when he was coming out of high school, the Georgia native recently committed to Alabama.

That leaves former TCU running back Zach Evans as the likely top option. Evans was a five-star recruit in the 2020 class, and his recruitment was a whirlwind. Evans was considered a Georgia lean at one point but delayed his signing to May, when he eventually chose TCU. Though his time with the Horned Frogs was limited by injuries, Evans was very productive with the ball in his hands, totaling 1,063 yards on 146 carries (7.3 yards per carry) and nine touchdowns in his two seasons in Fort Worth.

With two former five stars waiting in the wings in Bowman and Lingard, UF doesn’t necessarily need to go after a player like Evans. But if there’s a mutual interest, the Gators should certainly consider it to help replenish the running back room, especially if things don’t work out with either Etienne or Citizen.

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