Has Florida Figured out Its Running Back Puzzle in Spring Practice?

Barrett SalleeSEC Football Lead WriterApril 1, 2013

Florida's 2012 offense was truly remarkable. The Gators had no passing game to speak of, but led by running back Mike Gillislee, were able to put themselves on the doorstep of the SEC East title and BCS National Championship.

But Gillislee and his 1,152 yards and 10 touchdowns have moved on from Gainesville, leaving a major hole for head coach Will Muschamp to fill between now and the time toe meets leather.

Has Muschamp been able to answer those questions during spring practice?

Rising sophomore Matt Jones has the first at-bat to replace Gillislee. The Seffner, Fla. native rushed for 275 yards and three touchdowns last season, including an 81-yard performance against Florida State—the nation's third-best rush defense.

Muschamp has been impressed with Jones this spring, specifically pointing out his ability to catch passes out of the backfield and protect the quarterback.

“That was one of the things we really like about him other than his physical run style," Muschamp told the Gainesville Sun last week. "Very good in protection. Very intelligent. He's got the whole package as far as a back. Now, he's just got to continue to do it consistently.”

High praise from the head Gator. But behind Jones, there's still plenty of competition this spring.

Mack Brown entered the session as the veteran contender in the battle. The former 4-star prospect in the 247Sports.com composite index has battled injuries throughout his career, but is looking to finally live up to the hype in 2013. 

"Mack Brown has been really solid," Muschamp said last week. "He's done some nice things. He's been solid in protection and has caught the ball well."

The wild card is 5-star prospect Kelvin Taylor, who enrolled early from high school this January and is already impressing the coaching staff.

"Kelvin Taylor has a really nice, natural running instincts," Muschamp said. "He just has to learn what to do and where to go. That's true of the other mid-year guys here."

So who has the edge?

Jones is going to get the first crack at things as an every down running back, but the fact that Muschamp is pleased with the protection ability of both Jones and Brown is going to be huge for the entire offense.

Pass protection is often the most overlooked responsibility of any running back, and the fact that two of the three primary running backs have grasped that this spring will allow Muschamp and offensive coordinator Brent Pease the ability to mix and match running backs based on specific situations.

All three can handle the ball in running situations, and the ability of all three to catch the ball out of the backfield will fill the void in the passing game, which is desperately searching for answers at wide receiver.

The answer for Florida's running back battle isn't just Matt Jones. The answer is all three players doing different things out of the backfield. 

The running back position isn't like the quarterback position where when you have two quarterbacks, you really have none. All three players excel in different areas, which will allow Pease to trot different formations out on the field—including some that could feature multiple running backs.

Florida's offense is still going to rely around the ground game, and that running game will most likely be a three-headed monster in 2013. That's good news for Florida fans, because not only will that allow those three running backs to stay fresh for a full four quarters, but will also provide a spark to Florida's passing game in the process.