Gators bolstered by deep, talented backfield

Florida's Mack Brown (33) is part of a deep group of running backs that new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper has at his disposal.

Phil Sandlin/AP

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — You can never have too many.

That is a lesson Gators offensive coordinator Kurt Roper learned in his second stint at Tennessee, where he returned in 2006 to serve as running backs coach.

The Vols backfield was stacked in Roper’s assessment. They had a talented freshman in LaMarcus Coker, and a pair of productive sophomores in Arian Foster and Monterio Hardesty.

In a meeting one day, Roper blurted out, ”I have too many good players.”

Then-Vols offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe quickly corrected him. By the end of the season, Roper understood exactly why Cutcliffe was fast to shoot down any suggestion of a team having too many good running backs.

”The next thing I know, all I got is Arian Foster because Hardesty got injured and Coker was not able to play,” Roper said. ”Now you’re like, ‘Wait a second.’ ”

Roper enters his first season at UF facing a similar situation. The Florida backfield is clearly one of the team’s most talented and deepest positions with fifth-year senior Mack Brown, junior Matt Jones, sophomore Kelvin Taylor and true freshman Brandon Powell all expected to contribute in Roper’s up-tempo offense.

There is also redshirt freshman Adam Lane and junior tailback Mark Herndon, a player Roper said could start at other schools, and fullbacks Hunter Joyer and Gideon Ajagbe.

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”We’re fortunate to have the numbers,” Roper said. ”We’ve got guys that can play really good football at that position, but running back is a physical position and a place you do need numbers.”

Jones was projected as the starting tailback a season ago but missed camp due to a viral infection. That opened the door for Brown, who rushed for a career-high 112 yards in a season-opening win over Toledo. Brown finished as Florida’s leading rusher in 2013 with a career-high 543 yards.

As the season progressed Taylor emerged as a dangerous option at tailback and finished with 508 yards rushing in nine games. Jones returned at Miami in the second game of the season but other than for a 176-yard game at Kentucky, struggled to find consistency before a season-ending knee injury at LSU in the sixth game.

And now Powell is in the mix. A 5-foot-9, 177-pound freshman from Deerfield Beach, you don’t need to be an NFL scout to see that Powell has talent. His quick feet and cutting ability have helped him stand out during camp and he isn’t afraid of contact.

The 6-foot-2, 233-pound Jones missed time last week with swelling around his surgically repaired knee but is back on the field and once again a key factor in Florida head coach Will Muschamp’s view.

While Roper’s no-huddle spread offense is a different style than that of former coordinator Brent Pease’s slower attack, the run game is very similar.

”Running game we haven’t changed,” Gators head coach Will Muschamp said. ”Inside zone, outside zone, down around, counter, power, that’s it. I mean, that’s our running game. That’s what we are. It’s a different angle from the back. (Matt) will have his pads running downhill. He did today a bunch and it looked really good.”

With the season opener 12 days away, Roper and Muschamp are looking at ways to utilize the talented group.

One way will be to throw them the ball instead of just handing it off on designed runs.

”Two guys are natural with their hands, and that’s Matt Jones and Brandon Powell,” Muschamp said after Monday’s practice. ”Those guys have natural ability to catch the ball. But Mack Brown and Kelvin have worked on it. Adam Lane, all those guys have worked on the hands. Mark Herndon catches the ball well. There’s no question that’ll be a huge part of what we do.”

A factor that should help get the players touches is Roper’s up-tempo system. The Gators ranked near the bottom of number of plays per game the past two years, averaging 67.2 plays per game in 2012 and 68.9 last season. In Roper’s final two seasons at Duke the Blue Devils averaged 76.2 plays a game two years ago and 73.5 per game in 2013.

Last week Roper was asked how many skill-position players he prefers to use in a game.

”The more the better is what it really gets down to,” he said. ”But typically you go into a game, with running backs you’re going to kind of lean on two and three’s going to show up in there some and you never know how the injuries are going to go and what not.”