University of Florida

Containing FSU’s dangerous Dalvin Cook atop Gators’ priority list

Florida State running back Dalvin Cook (4) runs for a short gain as he is stopped by Florida linebacker Antonio Morrison, right, in Tallahassee, Fla., Saturday, Nov. 29, 2014.
Florida State running back Dalvin Cook (4) runs for a short gain as he is stopped by Florida linebacker Antonio Morrison, right, in Tallahassee, Fla., Saturday, Nov. 29, 2014. AP

University of Florida star cornerback Jalen Tabor shoots it straight.

Sure, Georgia’s Nick Chubb, LSU’s Leonard Fournette and Alabama’s Derrick Henry, the presumptive Heisman Trophy favorite, are all outstanding tailbacks.

But there’s one guy right up the road who’s just a little bit different.

“[Florida State’s] Dalvin Cook is the best running back in the country,” Tabor said, emphatically. “The best running back we’ll play all season.”

He might be.

Cook, a former standout at Miami Central High, has rushed for 1,475 yards and 16 touchdowns this season, flying past former FSU star Warrick Dunn’s single-season record mark of 1,242 yards.

Despite battling a hamstring injury for much of the year, the sophomore has seven games over 100 yards, is averaging 7.97 yards per carry and is the Seminoles’ fourth-leading receiver, too, with 19 catches for 207 yards.

“That guy is special now,” UF coach Jim McElwain said. “He’s a fire-breather. He’s a glass-eater. He’s a difference-maker.

“Some guys in this college football, they have it. That every time they touch it they can make it happen and hit a home run. I mean this guy has it. I hope we’ll be able to tackle the guy. I mean, there haven’t been many teams that have.”

If the No. 10 Gators want to keep their slip College Football Playoff hopes alive, they better find a way to bottle up Cook on Saturday night.

The dynamic back is the Seminoles’ offense, accounting for 35 percent of FSU’s yards and 39 percent of the Seminoles’ touchdowns this season.

Only Boston College has truly shut down Cook (54 yards on 15 carries) in 2015. The Eagles rank No. 1 nationally in rushing defense and haven’t allowed a 100-yard rusher all season.

Although the Gators’ swarming defense is stout (No. 8 against the run, allowing just 108.2 yards per game), they haven’t been invincible.

Vanderbilt’s Ralph Webb (118 yards) and Tennessee’s Jalen Hurd (102 yards) both eclipsed the century mark against Florida, as did Volunteers quarterback Joshua Dobbs (136 yards).

Fournette rumbled for 180 yards and two touchdowns against the Gators, rag-dolling defenders up and down the field.

“We want to do better,” Gators safety Keanu Neal said.

“Dalvin’s a complete back. He can run. He has top-end speed, and he’ll lay the pound on you. We’ve just got to contain him, play within ourselves. Anybody we go against, if we play the way that we should play, we’ll dominate him.”

They didn’t last season.

Cook, who has a muddled history with Florida, gashed the Gators for 144 yards in last year’s 24-19 victory, masking quarterback Jameis Winston’s dreadful four-interception game.

Cook’s outstanding performance also tossed additional salt on former coach Will Muschamp’s Florida finale, as the five-star freshman was once committed to UF for nearly nine months before flipping to FSU days before enrolling early.

“Somebody told me he was committed here or something. Hmm,” McElwain muttered Monday, smiling.

“Wonder how he ended up there?”

Cook remains a pariah to Florida fans, and the 5-11, 200-pound tailback is even on questionable terms with a former South Florida buddy.

“We’re not on speaking terms right now,” said UF cornerback Quincy Wilson, a sophomore from University School who was in the same recruiting class as Cook.

“There’s no animosity. It’s just business.”

Related stories from Miami Herald