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The run game is as important to Florida’s offense as the pass is to Missouri’s

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If #DLineZou holds up, Florida could face quite a few second-and-longs.

NCAA Football: Tennessee at Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

This season went from “building opportunity” to “hell on a stick” awfully quickly for Jim McElwain and Florida. His Gators weren’t amazing in his first two years, but they did win the SEC East twice, and they did rank in the S&P+ top 15 last season.

This was, from the start, seen as a reset year. The offense was expected to improve from 88th in Off. S&P+ in 2016, and the hope was that said improvement would offset what would likely be a step backwards for a young defense.

The Gators certainly got the latter part of that. After ranking 13th or better in Def. S&P+ for nine straight years, they are currently 70th in that category. The offense, meanwhile ... is 98th.

Maybe the two highest-upside pieces on the offense (and two of the reasons why it was assumed offensive improvement was likely) — receiver Antonio Callaway and running back Jordan Scarlett — were indefinitely suspended for their roles in a credit card fraud complaint.

Meanwhile, the QB situation did not really clear itself up.

  • Notre Dame grad transfer Malik Zaire was in no way a standout in fall camp.
  • Luke Del Rio first a) continued to be Luke Del Rio, then b) got hurt.
  • Redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks was asked to carry a worse than expected skill corps and couldn’t.

Florida is a decent 37th in rushing success rate and an abominable 109th in passing success rate. They are decent at staying on schedule, but bad things happen when they fall off-schedule. And now, to liven things up a bit, interim head coach Randy Shannon is evidently giving Zaire the starting nod against Mizzou.

Backfield

QB

  • Malik Zaire (6’0, 226, Sr.) — 12-for-23 (52%), 142 yards, 5 sacks (3.9); 5 carries, 35 yards (7.0)
  • Feleipe Franks (6’5, 227, RSFr.) — 75-for-125 (60%), 830 yards, 4 TD, 4 INT, 19 sacks, 4.9 yards per attempt (inc. sacks); 21 carries, 170 yards (8.1)

RB

  • Lamical Perine (5’11, 218, So.) — 79 carries, 365 yards (4.6), 6 TD; 4 targets, 3 catches, 47 yards (11.8)
  • Mark Thompson (6’2, 239, Sr.) — 30 carries, 119 yards (4.0), 1 TD; 11 targets, 9 catches, 70 yards 6.4)
  • Adarius Lemons (6’0, 201, Fr.) — 3 carries, 18 yards (6.0)
  • Out: Malik Davis (5’11, 194, Fr.) — 79 carries, 526 yards (6.7), 2 TD; 7 targets, 7 catches, 58 yards

Zaire's career to date has been ... we'll say odd. As a backup in South Bend in 2014, he completed 21 of 35 passes with a solid 133.3 passer rating and averaged 5.7 yards per carry in seven games. He was 12-for-15 in the Irish's bowl win over LSU.

In 2015, he took over the starting job and thrived. He was 19-for-22 for 313 yards and three touchdowns in Notre Dame's season-opening romp over Texas. And against Virginia the next week, he was a mere 7-for-18, but he made up for it by rushing for 87 yards. But he fractured his right ankle and was lost for the season.

In his absence, DeShone Kizer thrived, and Zaire began 2016 as the backup. Brian Kelly tried to keep him involved early in the year, but it didn't go well -- against Texas and Nevada, he was just 6-for-14 for 72 yards and rushed eight times for five yards. The season went to hell for the Irish, and despite Kizer electing to go pro, Zaire transferred.

With nothing else working in the season opener against Michigan, Zaire was subbed in and went 9-for-17 for 106 yards. Of course, he was also sacked five times and therefore averaged just 3.3 yards per pass attempt. That was basically all the action he got until going 3-for-6 in last week's embarrassing loss to Georgia.

You could interpret Shannon’s decision to start Zaire in one of two ways:

  1. Whereas McElwain was playing for the future by starting Franks, Shannon has no reason to do so and is looking to win games now.
  2. This is change for change’s sake in a desperate search for a spark.

Well, I guess “both” is a reasonable reaction, too.

In theory, Zaire could provide a spark for the run game, though if you don’t include sacks, Franks was averaging 8.1 yards per carry. In five carries this year, Zaire has averaged 7.0. But at the least, change probably can’t hurt. Even if it doesn’t help.

The shining light for this offense has been Malik Davis, but he’s now out for the season with a knee injury. The backfield will now consist of Zaire and the duo of Perine and Thompson. Each has had his moments, as Mizzou fans can attest: the two combined to carry 21 times for 171 yards against the Tigers in Gainesville last year. We think Mizzou’s run defense has improved, but we’ll find out.

If the Gators can’t run, though, they probably won’t be able to pass. The run is as important to Florida’s offense as the pass is to Mizzou’s.

Vanderbilt vs Florida
Lamical Perine
Photo by Logan Bowles/Getty Images

Receiving Corps

SLOT

  • Brandon Powell (5’8, 189, Sr.) — 35 targets, 17 catches, 148 yards (4.2), 1 TD; 2 carries, 10 yards (5.0), 1 TD
  • Dre Massey (5’9, 186, Jr.) — 7 targets, 4 catches, 23 yards (3.3), 1 TD
  • Kadarius Toney (5’11, 194, Fr.) — 18 targets, 12 catches, 115 yards (6.4); 13 carries, 117 yards (9.0), 1 TD (probable with shoulder injury)

WR-X

  • Freddie Swain (6’0, 194, So.) — 15 targets, 7 catches, 89 yards (5.9), 1 TD
  • Josh Hammond (6’1, 187, So.) — 17 targets, 11 catches, 138 yards (8.1) (questionable with back injury)

WR-Z

  • Tyrie Cleveland (6’2, 205, So.) — 27 targets, 16 catches, 331 yards (12.3), 2 TD; 2 carries, 6 yards (3.0) (probable with ankle injury)
  • Daquon Green (6’1, 195, Fr.)

TE

  • C’yontai Lewis (6’4, 235, Jr.) — 5 targets, 4 catches, 21 yards (4.2)
  • DeAndre Goolsby (6’4, 239, Sr.) — 14 targets, 10 catches, 77 yards (5.5)
  • Moral Stephens (6’4, 251, Jr.) — 7 targets, 3 catches, 55 yards (7.9)
  • Kalif Jackson (6’4, 236, So.)
  • Kemore Gamble (6’3, 255, Fr.)

When Callaway was suspended before the season, I wasn’t actually all that worried for Florida — I figured that simply would result in more opportunities for some exciting young receivers.

Tyrie Cleveland was one of the top recruits in the country in the 2016 class and flashed major potential as a true freshman last year. He caught three balls for 79 yards against Mizzou and three for 124 against LSU.

Granted, the rest of the year he only had eight catches for 96 yards. But I figured he would easily be a candidate for 40 or 50 catches this season. He hit that pace early, catching 13 balls for 259 yards in the first three games, but he has only three catches since because of ankle issues. He’s probable for Saturday, but we’ll see what he’s capable of. (Hopefully not much.)

Freddie Swain, meanwhile, also stood to gain from a move up the totem pole. He caught eight balls as a four-star freshman last year, but he’s caught more than one ball in a game just once all season.

Easily the most frequently targeted player so far this year: Brandon Powell. The slot man is used primarily as an extension of the run game, but he hasn’t been a very efficient extension. His success rate is a paltry 29 percent (as a possession man, it should be about 45 percent or higher), and he’s averaging under nine yards per catch. He could be dangerous in jet sweep situations (and as we’ve seen this year, Missouri defenders certainly aren’t immune to getting caught up in the wash and getting to the corner too late).

If we see any sort of change in Shannon’s first week as interim coach, I figure it’s the old “simply the offense” trick: run plenty of zone read to take advantage of whatever mobility Zaire still has, then run play action off of it, most likely to Cleveland. It could work. But if the Gators’ run game isn’t clicking, it doesn’t really seem like this offense is schemed well enough to generate much out of the passing game on second- or third-and-longs.

Kentucky v Florida
Freddie Swain (16)
Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Offensive Line

LT

  • Martez Ivey (6’5, 315, Jr.) — 7 starts in 2017, 27 career starts
  • Kavaris Harkless (6’4, 311, Jr.) — 1 career start

LG

  • Brett Heggie (6’4, 330, RSFr.) — 7 starts in 2017, 7 career starts
  • Nick Buchanan (6’3, 283, So.)

C

  • T.J. McCoy (6’1, 308, So.) — 7 starts in 2017, 11 career starts
  • Tyler Jordan (6’4, 310, Jr.) — 11 career starts

RG

  • Fred Johnson (6’6, 330, Jr.) — 7 starts in 2017, 17 career starts
  • Antonio Riles (6’4, 328, Jr.) — 6 career starts

RT

  • Jawaan Taylor (6’5, 334, So.) — 7 starts in 2017, 18 career starts
  • Stone Forsythe (6’7, 329, RSFr.)
  • T.J. Moore (6’0, 305, Fr.)

Under McElwain (and in the final years under Will Muschamp), Florida's recruiting rankings didn't keep up with Alabama's or Florida State's or anything, but it was still pretty good. The weird thing, however, is the distribution.

Per my count, UF entered the season with two former four- or five-star recruits (per 247) at quarterback, two at running back, six in the receiving corps, seven on the defensive line, and seven in the secondary. But the linebacking corps had one, and the offensive line had three ... two of which were true freshmen.

For the most part, the line has performed as a black sheep just as the recruiting rankings might suggest. The Gators are 70th in Adj. Line Yards and 111th in Adj. Sack Rate, and while the sack rate certainly wasn't helped by Franks' inexperience, remember: Zaire got sacked five times in 22 attempts against Michigan, too.

If Missouri's defensive front is indeed improving as we think it might be (don't ask me to bet any money on that), then it should be able to stand up to this line. Ivey, the former blue-chipper, is good, but this unit isn't any better than the one Missouri defenders line up against in practice. If Florida is able to gash the Tigers up front, then never mind on that whole “indeed improving” thing.

Missouri v Florida
Martez Ivey
Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images