GAINESVILLE — When Stan Drayton takes a moment to survey his Florida running backs, he sees great potential. The running backs coach has spent the preseason trying to develop that talent, while figuring out exactly where each player best fits in the Gators' new offense.
"We've got four guys that can flat-out fly, I mean they all can flat-out run, they can accelerate, they can cut full speed," said Drayton, who previously coached the position at UF from 2005-07. "I'm extremely excited about that. They love football. That's the beauty of that group. I love going in there and standing in front of them because I know they love football. And they love the process.
"It seems like they are starting to know and understand what it is to be Florida football players. It's grimy, it's tough. And these guys are starting to understand and love the grime a little bit."
Which is exactly what the Gators are hoping for this season — tough, hard-nosed runners. Florida was led the past two seasons by the toughest running quarterback in the nation. Now everyone wants to know who will emerge to help the Gators return to a dominant rushing game?
Florida returns two of its primary rushers from last season — junior Jeff Demps and redshirt senior Emmanuel Moody. Demps, the reigning NCAA 100-meters champion, Chris Rainey (who has moved to wide receiver) and Moody combined for 1,698 yards and 15 touchdowns last season.
The Gators need to replace their top rusher the past two seasons, quarterback Tim Tebow, who combined for 1,483 yards.
"We have guys who are talented and capable of playing well," Moody said. "We know what we're missing (from last season), and we know what's expected of us. None of us wants to let this team down."
Last spring, Demps said he liked the idea of being a 1,000-yard rusher, something Florida coach Urban Meyer has never had.
But if you listen to offensive coordinator Steve Addazio, that might not be an option for any running backs this season. With Tebow gone and redshirt junior John Brantley replacing him, Addazio would like to spread the ball around to the wealth of talent he has at both receiver and running back.
"Don't forget sometimes what skews (past stats) is Tim's ability to run so well,'' Addazio said Saturday. "So now, obviously you want to take advantage of Johnny's talents and Johnny's not going to run as much. And the reality of it is, you're going to want to throw that thing. But we're going to be balanced, that's going to happen. … Basically who we are isn't going to change, you'll just see these tweaks coming out here right now. You're going to see obviously more I-formation. …
"We're about getting the ball in the hands of the playmakers, we're about doing what our players can do great. Now it could come in the appearance of two backs under center, it could come in a lot of different shapes and forms. But we're going to really get that thing spread around.''
Equally important for the Gators is the question of who will step up in short-yardage situations, the kind Tebow became legendary for.
"Tebow was 240 pounds, and I don't have a back 240 pounds," Drayton said. "… Our backs have got to get that job done. We want our numbers called in those situations."
"It's a mind-set," Moody added. "You can change your mind and want to be a guy that has that (short-yardage) demeanor. I don't feel like it's something you either have it or you don't. I just believe if you really change your mind and not let those weaknesses enter your mind and be a cancer, then you really can be that running back that has a demeanor because a lot of that fourth and 1, red zone, the goal-line style of runs, it's all mind-set.
"If you really want to get in the end zone, I believe you can if your O-line gives you the opportunity."
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected]