Before the season began, Florida's depth chart at running back consisted of a senior with an up-and-down career (Kestahn Moore), a transfer who hadn't played in nearly 18 months (Emmanuel Moody), a redshirt freshman coming off 2007 shoulder surgery (Chris Rainey) and Jeff Demps, a true freshman with world-class speed.
It was Demps who intrigued coach Urban Meyer most. He thought with time - lots of time - the young man from South Lake High in Grovelandcould be a great player at Florida.
But running backs coach Kenny Carter saw things a little differently. During his first full meeting with Demps, who arrived on campus in July, the veteran assistant sensed quick impact potential.
"And I'll tell you why," Carter said emphatically. "The first time I got a chance to sit down with him and talk about our pass-protection scheme and the things that we do ... he understood it and could spit it back at me immediately. When he did that, I was a happy man. Because I knew that if he could do that, he was ready. That was right when we started being able to do football stuff. He just took off and could do it all. So we were really excited about that."
Along with excitement, Demps and Rainey have brought a legitimate running game to the Gators, something Meyer didn't have in his previous three years at Florida, outside of wide receiver Percy Harvin. Gators running backs have accounted for 896 yards on 127 carries and 10 touchdowns. They totaled 761 yards on 136 carries last season.
Demps and Rainey emerged after the loss to Ole Miss, in which senior Moore and transfer Moody were injured.
In the past three games, Demps and Rainey have carried 52 times for 487 yards and four rushing touchdowns. Demps had consecutive 100-yard games (Arkansas, LSU), and his 11.9 yards-per-carry average leads Division I-A (minimum 25 attempts). His average touchdown run is 47 yards.
"I'm working as hard as I can, just trying to do whatever I can to help my team," the soft-spoken Demps said. "I still have a lot to learn."
In the Arkansas game Oct. 4, the Gators set a single-game record for rushing yards under Meyer (278) and followed with the second-best mark against then-No. 3 LSU.
At "5-foot-nothing" as Meyer jokingly refers to Demps (5 feet 8, 176 pounds) and Rainey (5-9, 185), the two pose a threat because of their speed. Demps has run 100 meters in 10.01 seconds and just missed qualifying for the final at the Olympic trials this year. Rainey has run sub-4.4 for 40 yards and 10.23 in the 100. Demps is more tough to defend in the speed-option because once he breaks free, he has the potential to make huge gains.
"(The option) allows me to get into space, and when I get into space, I can do a lot of things and get upfield," he said. "When you get the pitch, you're looking at your blocker first, just trying to make a read off the block. Once you get past the block, you start looking downfield."
Meyer said when he sees Demps or Rainey break free out of the backfield, "I become like a fan. It's a beautiful thing to watch."
It's also a tremendous help to quarterback Tim Tebow, broadening the offensive game plan.
"Having them in the game just opens things up," the junior said. "Their speed allows them to get to the edge. We can put them in open space to try to create one-on-one matchups. They are so fast and athletic, we can stretch the field horizontally."
In the first seven games, Demps has averaged 12.1 yards every time he touches the ball, Rainey 6.8. And according to Carter, their potential is limitless.
"I told Jeff and Chris (this week) they have kind of a Tiger-Woodish deal," Carter said. "Because they are so fast, they are at another level than everybody else. So if they play at their level, they can really do some great things. But if they don't play at their level, then they are just average."
In a game in which teams are so evenly matched, having the duo play at "their level" could be the difference between winning and losing for the Gators in today's rivalry game against Georgia in Jacksonville.