GatorZone.com Senior Writer
HOOVER, Ala. -- The trio of Florida players Coach Will Muschamp brought to Southeastern Conference Media Days were about as anonymous as any Gators ever to check in at the league’s annual preseason hype fest.
“Who’s that guy?” a broadcaster from Tennessee asked.
It was senior inside linebacker Jon Bostic. He led the team in tackles last season.
“What about the one in that far corner?”
That was junior outside linebacker Lerentee McCray, who was slowed by a shoulder injury, but figures to be an impact player on a very good defense this fall.
Oh him? Well, say hello to senior Mike Gillislee. He’ll enter camp as the No. 1 tailback -- and merely figures to be one of keys to the team’s success in 2012.
Yes, that Mike Gillislee, who carried 56 times for 328 yards last season for UF’s running-game challenged offense -- which brings us to one of the most critical challenges for Muschamp and his coaching staff heading into Year 2 of their regime.
Coming off a 7-6 season that marked the program’s worst record in more than two decades, the No. 1 priority for the Gators on offense this fall will be to roll out a more physical, head-on running game the likes of which can compete with the heavyweights of the nation’s best conference.
“We’re going to change because of our backs,” Muschamp said Wednesday.
Gone are Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps, the mighty-mite tandem that was tailor-made for getting the ball in space in Urban Meyer’s spread offense. Muschamp and new offensive coordinator Brent Pease, by way of Boise State, favor a more conventional, no-nonsense, between-the-tackles rushing attack.
“That’s more my style,” said Gillislee, who starred at DeLand (Fla.) High. “Straight ahead and getting those tough, physical yards.”
Those are exactly the kind of yards Muschamp wants his offense to be noted for.
“I should have played him more last year,” Muschamp said. “When I’m wrong, I admit it.”
When Muschamp made that very admission to Gillislee in their postseason evaluation meeting last January, the running back appreciated the belated vote of confidence.
“I just told him that was in the past,” Gillislee said. “But now it’s my time to step up.”
How does 1,500 yards and 24 touchdowns sound?
Like an All-American, right?
Well, those were the numbers Gillislee was throwing around to the multitude of media on hand for UF’s session Wednesday. A season like that rank second only to Emmitt Smith’s school record of 1,599 yards.
Commence raising eyebrows.
“Yeah, they’re lofty goals,” Gillislee acknowledged rather matter-of-factly. “That’s why I set ‘em.”
Clearly, he’s heading into the season with the right mindset. The 5-foot-11, 201-pound Gillislee will need to in order to fend off challenges from the likes of redshirt sophomore Mack Brown (5-11/210), sophomore Chris Johnson (5-9/205) and true freshman Matt Jones (6-2/213).
All of four candidates pack a much different punch than the quick-strike duo of Rainey (5-9/174) and Demps (5-7/191), who were ideal backs for Meyer’s system, which emphasized hitting the edges, but not for a power game. Both Rainey and Demps took a pounding over the course of last season and Florida’s running game wane to the point of futility.
The Gators finished 2011 ranked eighth in the SEC in at 143 yards per game, but that statistic was a mirage.
· UF rushed for 1,036 yards through its first four games, but that those were against, first, non-conference foes Florida Atlantic and UAB, then SEC opponents Tennessee and Kentucky, who combined for three league wins during the season. The Gators started 4-0 and probably felt pretty good about their rushing game.
· Florida’s next four games came against league heavyweights Alabama, LSU, Auburn and Georgia. The Gators averaged only 43.7 yards in those games -- and just 1.5 per carry -- and suffered their first four-game losing streak since 1988.
· UF was next-to-last in the SEC in third-down conversions (just 32.1 percent), with many of those situations due to poor (or negative) runs on first down and a maddening inability to bow up and run on third-and-short.
That has to change in ’12.
“If we need some tough yards, Gill is the guy I’d want getting the ball,” McCray said. “He has that will, that determination and toughness to run the ball downhill.”
But he’s not one-dimensional.
“Gillislee still has that burst to get outside and outrun people if he wants to,” Bostic said. “He doesn’t do it all the time, but he’s always looking to put his in the ground and get upfield.”
After watching the Gators fail over and over to get the tough yards last year, Gillislee can’t wait to be the one his teammates are leaning on.
“I felt like in some games, when we didn’t get the first down -- when it was like third-and-2 -- I could have been in there and gotten it,” he said. “It was a little frustrating, but I just stayed humble. Now they have confidence in me."