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Can another former Florida Gators back help replenish USF’s run game?

Veteran Nay’Quan Wright joins a Bulls tailback unit decimated by the transfer portal.
Former Florida Gators running back Nay'Quan Wright, seen in action against USF in a 2021 game at Raymond James Stadium, transferred to USF in January after four seasons in Gainesville.
Former Florida Gators running back Nay'Quan Wright, seen in action against USF in a 2021 game at Raymond James Stadium, transferred to USF in January after four seasons in Gainesville. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published April 12

TAMPA — The figurative paint remains fresh on the precedent. Only a half-decade ago, a USF rushing attack depleted by graduation got a solid reinforcement via Gainesville.

This spring, a similar scenario just might be unfolding. The Bulls’ tailback room still was feeling the aftershock of the transfers of 1,000-yard rusher Brian Battie (to Auburn) and 230-pound veteran Jaren Mangham (to Michigan State) when former four-star prospect Nay’Quan Wright transferred to USF after four seasons at Florida.

Seemingly obscured in a perpetual logjam of backs in Gainesville, Wright nonetheless averaged 3.9 yards a carry (189 attempts, 753 yards, five touchdowns) in 33 career games at UF.

“Nay’Quan, he’s got some power, also got some speed to him,” Bulls fifth-year veteran Kelley Joiner said.

Toss in Joiner’s return to full strength (from a 2022 preseason left foot injury) and the evolution of Clemson transfer Michel Dukes, and the Bulls’ backfield outlook suddenly is trending more toward glowing than grim.

“I feel pretty good about two or three — really, three — of them that I feel like can do everything,” said first-year running backs coach Matt Merritt, who will showcase his group at Friday evening’s spring game at Corbett Stadium.

“(They can) catch out of the backfield, block, can run, are strong in contact, (yards after the catch), always being able to make a guy miss. So it is really unique from that standpoint; you’ve got three guys that you feel like you never have to take off the field.”

Ideally, Merritt hopes to employ what he calls “a pair and a spare” rotation, where two backs play roughly 80% of the snaps in new coach Alex Golesh’s warp-speed tempo, with a third periodically interspersed. At this point, that triumvirate would appear to comprise Wright, Joiner and Dukes, though sophomore K’wan Powell and former walk-on Yasias Young (now on scholarship) also have made impressions this spring.

USF fifth-year senior tailback Kelley Joiner (3), who has run for 1,271 career yards with the Bulls, is seeking a breakthrough season in 2023.
USF fifth-year senior tailback Kelley Joiner (3), who has run for 1,271 career yards with the Bulls, is seeking a breakthrough season in 2023. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

But the x-factor could be Wright (5-foot-9, 204 pounds), who will try to replicate the success fellow former Gator Jordan Cronkrite enjoyed in his first season with the Bulls (1,129 yards, nine TDs) in 2018.

Wright arrived at UF in 2019 after a sparkling career at Miami’s Carol City High, but — like Cronkrite — never found traction in the Gators’ congested backfield. During Wright’s tenure, the unit at various intervals featured Malik Davis (now with the Cowboys), Dameon Pierce (Texans), Trevor Etienne (SEC All-Freshman team in 2022) and Montrell Johnson (2022 rushing leader).

“He’s got a really high football IQ,” Merritt said.

“Obviously, he’s had no problem picking it up and really understands what’s happening up front in the run game, understands the schemes and where it’s supposed to fit. And then in pass protection, he really understands blitzes and safety rotations and where pressure can be coming from. So it’s just really enjoyable from that standpoint to have him.”

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Potentially providing a fleet complement will be Joiner, who managed only 12 carries last year following his foot injury but averaged 6.2 yards per handoff (78 carries, 480 yards) in 2021.

“Really, I feel like I haven’t done nothing yet at USF,” said Joiner, who ran for 1,006 yards his first three games as a senior at Groveland’s South Lake High before suffering a broken leg. “Well, not nothing, but I feel like I didn’t meet the standards that I set coming out of high school.”

If he and Wright can break out concurrently in 2023, the “pair and a spare” approach could become a local craze. Think of the name, image and likeness possibilities. Or the wonders it could do in a game’s waning stage.

“Early on in the game, everyone is hyped up, everyone is fresh, the defense is fresh, a lot more 4-yard runs, 3-yard runs, 5-yard runs,” Merritt said. “As the game goes on, those runs get bigger as the defense gets tired. So for my guy, the defense’s 80th play could be his 40th play. That’s an advantage for us.”

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls

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