After finally working his way to the top of Florida's depth chart, Mike Gillislee made the most of his starting role this past season.
His 1,104 rushing yards marked the first time a Gator ran for over 1,000 yards in a season since Ciatrick Fason in 2004. His 10 touchdowns were also the most by a true running back at Florida since Fason's aforementioned campaign.
More meaningful than Gillislee's stats were his performances in rivalry games. Three of his 100-yard games this season came against Tennessee, LSU and Florida State. Furthermore, two of those contests were away from the friendly confines of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
His dependability in the backfield during these matchups took some of the pressure off Jeff Driskel and the rest of Florida's offense, leading to three victories. It also showed how effective Will Muschamp's philosophy of smash-mouth defense and tough running can be against college football's toughest teams.
Unfortunately for the Gators, their Sugar Bowl showdown with Louisville will be Gillislee's last game in a Florida uniform. The team will have to find a way during the offseason to replace his consistent production.
Predicting who will lead the team in rushing next season is a difficult task, considering one injury or event during the spring or summer could alter the picture dramatically.
In any case, it is imperative that one or more players step up their games in order for Muschamp's squad to build on a successful season. In my mind, there are currently three candidates who have a legitimate chance of leading the Gator ground attack.
Mack Brown will be a redshirt junior next season, which means he will have the most experience of my three favorites. He finished the regular season with only 102 yards on 25 carries. He likely would have had better numbers, but a late-season ankle injury forced him to the sidelines.
Although those aren't stellar numbers, Florida's coaching staff really likes Brown. He surprised them and many other others with his performance during spring practice last season.
This is especially true of offensive coordinator Brent Pease, who, according to GatorSports.com, said last spring that he was impressed with Brown's ball security and his downhill running style. He also added, "The kid's got a great attitude, I think he's awesome. I love being around him."
As Pease mentioned, Brown is a solid downhill runner. At 5'10" and about 215 pounds, he's not the biggest back out there. However, he has solid speed and good vision.
If he can impress during spring practice once again, he has a chance at earning the bulk of the playing time in Florida's backfield.
If you look at Matt Jones' numbers from this season, you might think he is the odds-on favorite to earn the starting nod. After all, he was third on the team with 259 yards on the ground.
These numbers, however, are somewhat deceiving.
Most of those yards came during Florida's final two games against Jacksonville State and Florida State, games in which Mack Brown did not play. The Florida State game stands out in particular because the Seminoles faltered a bit after losing their second-half lead, allowing the Gators to torch them late in the game.
This also allowed Jones to positively skew his numbers a bit.
Still, Jones is a talented back. He is bigger than Brown and more physical. He has drawn comparisons to former Gator DeShawn Wynn for those reasons.
Overall, he is believed to be the more skilled back in comparison to Brown. He has shown good acceleration and balance in limited action. He could be an instant producer if given the chance.
This offseason is key for Jones. He already made a good first impression with his performance at the end of this season. If he can show a great deal of growth and development in spring practice, there is no reason why he should not be given a chance as the team's starter.
He was a highly ranked recruit for a reason, but it's up to him to earn the trust of his coaches.
Driskel is by far the biggest long shot of the three. However, If Jones and Brown end up splitting the workload evenly, Driskel has an outside chance at leading the Gators in rushing.
His 404 yards this season were good enough for second on the team. He showed that he can be explosive in the open field, especially in a 31-17 victory over Vanderbilt. During that game, he had a 70-yard touchdown run in which he seemingly blew past every other player on the field.
Once on the run, Driskel is tough to bring down due to his size. In addition, the fact that he is required to touch the ball on almost every snap should lend itself to running opportunities.
Of course, the Gators staff will focus on improving his passing abilities during the offseason. This team will ultimately go as far as Driskel can take them.
For this reason, I expect to see a more definitive "pass first, run second" philosophy carried out by the Gator signal-caller. It will not only make the offense more productive, but also keep Driskel from getting injured. It also makes a team rushing title highly unlikely.
Ultimately, I think Jones will prevail as the Gators' leading rusher next season.
His production at the end of 2012 was key. It showed that he is capable of stepping up and making plays when called on to do so. He also showed an explosiveness that Brown seemed to lack when he was on the field.
All told, Jones is a very noticeable dot on Pease and Muschamp's radars.
He may be a young back, but Matt Jones is very talented and looks destined for big things.
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