GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel is searching for a new safety net.
With tight end Jordan Reed, the Gators’ leading receiver last season, headed for the NFL, Driskel has to find someone else upon whom he can rely for a sure completion and positive yardage.
Offensive coordinator Brent Pease wants him to start looking at the guys lined up beside and behind him.
Pease said the Gators’ running backs were not used enough in the passing game last season. Not counting Trey Burton and Omarius Hines -- who were utility players who lined up in the backfield as well as at tight end and receiver -- UF’s backs last season combined to catch just 26 passes for 186 yards and one touchdown.
“One thing we've got to do a lot better from a running backs standpoint in our throwing game, is [the backs] have got to get out,” Pease said. “We only hit the running back on a couple check-downs when we went back and evaluated ourselves. I mean, that's incredible. Other than designed screens, they only have about four passes to them. They should be in the 40-50 range if you're going to throw the ball, because it's just a check-down. It's a simple throw.”
A check-down throw to a running back is one of the easiest a quarterback can make. The back circles out of the backfield and sets up about 5 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, usually in the middle of the field. The quarterback makes his reads, and if finding no one open, just tosses the ball to the back. It’s good for generally 5-8 yards, especially if the defense is in zone, because the back is catching the ball in front of the linebackers.
Sometimes it can result in a big play if the back is able to make a linebacker miss or break a tackle.
Most of UF’s success in throwing to the backs last season came on screens -- Gillislee had the biggest of the season when he went 45 yards for the game-winning touchdown against Missouri -- and they’ll continue to be part of the game plan. But Pease said the backs not being involved much in other aspects of the passing game falls as equally on their shoulders as it does Driskel’s. They have to better understand pass protections and know when to release into the pattern and where to sit in the zone.
Driskel, though, has to be willing to use his check-down instead of always scrambling. Pease wants Driskel to quickly makes his reads (which is a big emphasis this spring) and dump the ball off if nothing’s open.
“It's a simple throw,” Pease said. “They should have 5-8 yards if not breaking one. That's on [the backs] a bit to understand the protections, get out better, find the zones to sit into, and the quarterbacks to say, 'Hey, I can't hold onto the ball forever, I have to find my check-downs.'
“It doesn't have to be downfield all the time. We'll take those nice little 5-yard throws and let them run with it afterwards.”
The job may not always fall to Jones (three catches for 10 yards in 2012), Brown (three catches for 0 yards), or Taylor. The Gators have moved redshirt freshman Rhaheim Ledbetter and redshirt junior Gideon Ajagbe to fullback from safety and linebacker, respectively. Ledbetter played running back in high school and has experience catching the ball.
“Rhaheim was very effective (and) catches the ball well,” UF coach Will Muschamp said after the Gators concluded their first spring practice on Wednesday evening. “He’s got lower body punch and power. Gideon has not contributed much for us on defense since he’s been here and deserves the opportunity to try and get into a situation to help us.”
The Gators will need it. Hines has graduated, which leaves Burton (69 career catches) as the only player who has shown he can be a reliable target out of the backfield. But the Gators mainly use him at tight end and receiver in the passing game.
“We’ve got to be more efficient throwing it,” Muschamp said. “That’s going to be a big part of it in spring.”