GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- As the bright mid-day light drew closer, Mack Brown could not help but let the emotions of the moment get the better of him Saturday. The south end zone tunnel at Florida Field, especially on opening day, can be an inspiring place. This time, though, was different.
So he cried.
“I felt like I was useless around here the last couple years,” said Brown, the junior tailback. “So I took an opportunity and ran with it.”
Did he ever.
With workhorse-in-waiting Matt Jones sidelined since the start of the preseason with a viral infection, Brown was tapped for the first start of his career and merely carried 25 times for 112 yards and two touchdowns in 10th-ranked Florida’s season-opening 24-6 victory over Toledo at Florida Field.
Not bad, considering Brown came into the game with 167 combined yards his previous three seasons. He had two-thirds of that number -- 97 yards -- by halftime.
“Mack is a guy who’s talented,” Gators coach Will Muschamp said. “He just needed an opportunity to play.”
Had Jones, the 6-foot-2, 226-pound downhill-running beast, not been living on antibiotics the last five weeks, Brown may not have been lost in the shuffle again. But an opening to make a difference appeared before him in the preseason and Brown seized it like a guy looking to make up for lost time.
And it didn’t hurt that Muschamp approached Brown before the game with a message, either.
“When need a big day out of you,” the coach said.
Brown’s big day spilled over into a stable of UF backs that suddenly looks deep and diverse, with Jones expected to fortify the unit when the Gators play at Miami next week. Florida trampled Toledo for 262 rushing yards on 50 carries -- 5.5 a pop -- and did it with a variety of looks.
Sophomore Valdez Showers, moved from safety less than a month ago, showed the blazing speed that made him a 2,000-yard rusher in Michigan when he took off for a 29-yard run in the second quarter. Sophomore Mark Herndon, a former walk-on awarded a scholarship just last week, ran four times for 32 yards. True freshman Kelvin Taylor, the son of former UF and NFL star Fred Taylor, ran five times for 43 yards, including a 27-yard burst.
“We’re going to make plays back there,” Showers said.
UF’s ability to control the ball on the ground nicely played into the Gators’ game plan. Knowing that Toledo would want to dictate tempo on offense (and averaged last season around 80 plays per game), Muschamp did not want his defense on the field -- not in August at the Swamp -- for extended series at a time.
So it was a welcome sight when Brown carried five times for 38 yards, including a 23-yard blast, on Florida’s opening possession. The Gators went 84 yards in 11 plays to go up 7-0.
Brown later pile-drove his way through the teeth of the Toledo defense for a 14-yard man-style touchdown run -- with several Rockets bouncing off him -- that pushed UF ahead 17-3.
“I got butterflies when I scored,” Brown said.
They were his first two touchdowns since his days as an Under Armour All-American at Lithonia (Ga.) King High. Yet when asked to pick his highlight of his greatest collegiate day, Brown did not single out his trips to the end zone. Or any of his carries, for that matter.
He went with a cut block, instead.
Brown took out a Rockets defensive end who was crashing down on UF quarterback Jeff Driskel on a third-and-goal play late in the third quarter. The block cleared a passing lane and allowed Driskel to float a 4-yard touchdown pass to fullback Gideon Ajagbe to push the Gators ahead by 18 points.
“Yeah, my favorite play was a block,” Brown smiled.
That says something about Brown, the person and teammate.
So did his answer when asked about the expected return of Jones next week in time to face the Hurricanes.
“We need him back,” Brown said. “I want him back.”
That’s not to say Mack won’t be back there, either. His coach said Brown earned his carries Saturday; and future ones, too.
“Nothing shocks me, what he did today,” Muschamp said. “I was expecting him to run hard and run well and he did.”