GAINESVILLE -- A year ago, the Florida Gators entered training camp without their starting running back, forcing a walk-on to receive plenty of preseason action.
Tailback depth is not an issue this fall.
Florida touts its best backfield in years, a crowded and loaded unit with as many as five candidates competing for playing time.
“We’re definitely a deep group,” junior Matt Jones said.
“Sometimes Kelvin [Taylor] runs with the one’s. I run with one’s one time. Mack Brown comes in. So you have a nice little rotation going. We’re definitely competing. Everybody’s going [hard] and trying to fight for that No. 1 position.”
Freshman Brandon Powell from Deerfield Beach and Adam Lane join Jones, Taylor and Brown to form a talented stable of backs, each offering a different skill set.
With so many options, the Gators are unlikely to produce a 1,000-yard back, but explosive plays and consistent production shouldn’t be a problem in this season.
In 2013, Jones was tabbed as UF’s workhorse back, but the junior was battling a serious viral infection in the hospital a year ago.
Although he eventually returned and rushed for a career-high 176 yards against Kentucky, Jones was never 100 percent healthy. His season ended just two weeks later with a torn meniscus.
The 235-pound physical back is healthy now and is vying with Taylor for his old starting job.
Taylor is fresh off a promising rookie season (508 yards) and emerged as a potential feature back after taking over for Jones. The sophomore, son of former Gators great Fred Taylor, added 10 pounds of muscle to improve his strength and speed to combine with his already impressive quickness and vision.
“I’ve gotten a whole lot faster,” he said. “I’m ready to be a complete back.”
Meanwhile, Brown, Florida’s leading rusher last season (543 yards), is a hard-nosed vet, but the senior is desperately battling two freshmen for backup carries.
Lane, just 5-7 but 222 pounds, is a battering ram, while Powell has turned heads during training camp with his electric home run ability.
“He’s the next rising star,” Jones said.
“You see he has burst on the field.”
In an effort to maximize the group’s potential, new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper will utilize plenty of two-back “diamond” sets. Jones and Powell are both talented receivers, and Brown and Lane are solid short-yardage options, but there still may not be enough carries to go around.
Roper acknowledged he prefers to play just three tailbacks in a game, with Jones admitting skepticism at a five-man rotation.
“Maybe enough for three,” Jones said, reluctantly. “It’s going to be kind of difficult [to get everyone involved].”
For Roper, it’s a good problem to have.
“In 2006, I went back to Tennessee and in that backfield was a guy named Arian Foster, Montario Hardesty and LaMarcus Coker,” Roper said. “All of them really talented football players. All of them wanted to play. Well, everybody can’t play. They’re sitting on the sidelines. So I’m in a room managing players who aren’t getting as many reps as they’re wanting to get.
“I made the comment, ‘I have too many good players’ and coach [David] Cutcliffe goes, ‘Oh no.’ The next thing I know, all I got is Arian Foster because Hardesty got injured and Coker wasn’t able to play. Now you’re like, wait a second. We’re fortunate to have the numbers here. We’ve got guys that can play really good football at that position. … These guys are really talented football players. But again, I’m one of those guys if the guy earns the right to play, let’s play him.”