GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The Gators open camp without two of their most recognizable players the past four years: running backs Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps.
Rainey is a rookie with the Steelers and Demps is in London competing for the U.S. track team at the Olympics. The two combined for more than 5,000 rushing yards in their careers, including 1,430 yards and eight touchdowns a year ago.
Rainey was also the team’s leading receiver and Demps a dangerous threat on kickoff returns. While the duo was an ideal fit for Urban Meyer’s spread-option offense, their lack of size proved a difficult obstacle in Will Muschamp’s first season.
Muschamp prefers an offense with a downhill running game that features big, bruising backs able to pick up yards between the tackles. New offensive coordinator Brent Pease shares a similar philosophy, highlighted by his use of 5-foot-9, 223-pound Bucs rookie Doug Martin a year ago at Boise State.
Martin rushed for 1,299 yards and 16 touchdowns, running inside and outside.
If senior Mike Gillislee can sniff that kind of production – Gillislee said he wants to rush for 1,500 yards this season at SEC Media Days – Muschamp and Pease will be pleased.
“Mike is a guy I’m expecting to have a good senior season,’’ Muschamp said. “He’s a guy, because of his running style, will [help us] be more of an inside-zone, two-back power lead team.”
Gillislee gained valuable experience the past three years as a change-of-pace back from Rainey and Demps. He needs 70 yards to eclipse 1,000 for his career.
While Gillislee is in position to start, don’t overlook true freshman Matt Jones. Jones has a man-among-boys build and was a primary recruiting target of the Gators shortly after Muschamp took over.
With fall camp scheduled to open Friday, GatorZone.com is taking a look at each position group this week. Here is a look at the running backs:
No. 23 Mike Gillislee (Sr., 5-11, 201)
At a glance: He averaged 5.9 yards per carry last season and has shown an ability to move the chains when given a chance. However, until now, Gillislee has never been the Gators’ featured back.
If Gillislee can stay healthy, this could be a breakout year for him. He has worked on his blocking and will need to be a threat out of the backfield in the passing game. He didn’t catch a pass last year and has only seven receptions in three seasons.
No. 33 Mack Brown (RS Soph., 5-11, 210)
At a glance: Brown’s potential outweighs his production at this point in his young career. He is a tough runner and has good speed but has been unable to crack the regular rotation in the backfield. That could change this season if he shows vast improvement.
No. 20 Omarius Hines (RS Sr., 6-2, 223)
At a glance: Hines came to coaches in the spring and requested a move to running back. He will continue to see work at tight end but is expected to get some looks out of the backfield in a hybrid role.
No. 24 Matt Jones (Fr., 6-2, 213)
At a glance: Jones led Armwood High in Tampa to a state title as a senior and is the kind of big back Muschamp wants to build the offense around. He has put on weight over the summer and should be a factor for the Gators as a true freshman if he can stay healthy.
Jones also showed ability to catch the ball in high school, hauling in nine receptions for 197 yards and three touchdowns as a senior. That will be important in Pease’s pro-style offense.
No. 32 Chris Johnson (Soph., 5-9, 205)
At a glance: He arrived as a safety, moved to linebacker, and then switched to running back in the spring, rushing for 40 yards in the Orange & Blue Debut. Johnson runs low to the ground and is the kind of back that can pick up yards up the middle.
No. 8 Trey Burton (Jr., 6-3, 227)
At a glance: Burton has done a little of everything in his two seasons with the Gators, proving Pease with a versatile weapon. While he is listed as the second-team fullback, Burton is expected to line up at receiver, tight end and running back.
Burton’s greatest attribute is perhaps as a receiver. He has 51 catches the past two seasons, including 32 as a true freshman in 2010. That would have led the team last season.
No. 41 Hunter Joyer (So., 5-10, 244)
At a glance: Joyer has the tools of a prototypical fullback. He has quick feet, is a tough inside runner and good blocker. As a freshman, his role increased as the season progressed.