University of Florida

South Florida running backs Scarlett, Cronkrite embracing position battle at UF

UF running back Jordan Cronkrite, from Miami Westminster Christian Academy, is battling for the starting job.
UF running back Jordan Cronkrite, from Miami Westminster Christian Academy, is battling for the starting job. AP

UF’s Jordan Scarlett and Jordan Cronkrite are bonded by their first name, their position on the football field and their aspirations.

After receiving spot playing time as freshmen last season, the South Florida duo is looking to expand on its role in the offense this year as the 25th-ranked Gators open their season Saturday against UMass.

They’re not alone.

With as many as five running backs vying for playing time, Cronkrite and Scarlett know they aren’t going to be handed the starting job.

“Your ability to spread it around is something that's only going to help you in the long run,” McElwain said. “It's hard sometimes for guys to see that, and yet the great ones do.”

Cronkrite added: “Just attack the day. You have to go out and win it.”

Throughout fall camp, McElwain, offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier and running backs coach Tim Skipper have had time to dissect the pros and cons of each of their five tailbacks.

Cronkrite is evolving into the every-down back, the player with the capabilities to handle the brunt of the work and provide consistent results each time the ball is in his hands. The former standout at Miami Westminster Christian Academy has enough speed, enough power, enough agility.

In essence, Cronkrite was Kelvin Taylor’s backup last season, the heir apparent to the starting job.

“I feel like I'm an all-around back,” Cronkrite said. “That was just the position I was in, and I was just doing what I was asked to do to help the team win."

Scarlett is the home-run hitter, the tailback who is one block away from turning a 5-yard run up the middle into a touchdown.

He played sparsely as a freshman, partly because of his lack of discipline in practice, partly because of his learning curve of McElwain’s system.

“It definitely shocked me in the beginning, coming in as a freshman,” said Scarlett, a former standout at Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas. “There were some tough practices.”

His lone big play after a year in Gainesville came in the fourth quarter against Georgia. He took a handoff from Treon Harris, bobbed past two defenders, and sprinted down the right sideline for a 60-yard gain. He kicked it into high gear down the stretch but was tackled after he slowed down to see how close the defenders were.

“It definitely brings back a lot of good memories,” Scarlett said of the run. “I think about it a lot, but it also let me know that I left a lot of opportunities on the field.”

Taylor, UF’s featured back a year ago, said he saw flashes from both Scarlett and Cronkrite during their year together at UF. He took the freshmen under his wing, helping ease the transition from high school ball to Southeastern Conference play.

“Those guys are going to do a tremendous job,” said Taylor, who rushed for 1,035 yards and 13 touchdowns last year and is now fighting for a roster spot with the San Francisco 49ers. “Just the way they learn and their knowledge of the game is great… [I told them] be coachable and always be focused on the next play and everything will come around.”

Although Scarlett and Cronkrite have experience in the system, they’re not alone in the quest to take charge in Florida’s backfield.

Junior college transfer Mark Thompson, at 6-2, 242 pounds, is the bruiser, the power back who can fight for the extra yards and wear down the defense one snap at a time.

Mark Herndon is the veteran. A fifth-year senior, Herndon spent the bulk of his time so far with the Gators on special teams but is receiving rave reviews from the coaching staff and his teammates.

And Lamical Perine is the freshman, the newcomer turning heads ahead of his first collegiate game who is turning heads and shedding defenders.

“All those guys are going to play,” Skipper said. “How exactly we do it, you’re just going to have to wait and find out.”

While Saturday’s a short wait for the start of the season, the five-back battle looks to continue for the weeks to come.

“There's only one ball,” Scarlett said. “Hey, it's the best man wins."