HOOVER, Ala. -- Mike Gillislee has never started a game, rushed for 100 yards in a game, or carried the ball more than 59 times in a season.
But the senior running back is convinced he’s about to turn in one of the greatest seasons by a running back in Florida football history. Gillislee’s goal is 1,500 yards and 24 touchdowns, the latter of which would break a record held by Tim Tebow (23 rushing TDs).
"I’ve got to make something happen for Florida to remember me," Gillislee said Wednesday at the Southeastern Conference’s annual media days.
That would certainly be a memorable season because only one other player in school history would have run for more yards in a single season: Emmitt Smith (1,599 yards in 1989). It also would make Gillislee just the eighth player in school history to rush for 1,000 yards in a single season -- and the first since Ciatrick Fason did it in 2004.
"I’m all for it," UF coach Will Muschamp said. "I love his confidence."
There are several reasons for it. After three years of getting mop-up work behind Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps, Gillislee is finally getting his chance to be the Gators’ main back. He’s also completely healthy for the first time since the middle of his sophomore season.
But perhaps most important is the fact that Gillislee is playing in an offense that’s built around running the ball between the tackles -- not a spread offense that relied on smaller, quicker backs to create big plays.
For Gillislee, those three things mean he’s going to finally get his chance to prove he’s one of the better backs in the SEC -- and ease the frustration of his first three seasons, when he often heard that he was going to get more work in an upcoming game only to get two or three carries or, even worse, not touch the ball.
Gillislee couldn’t understand it, because he had always produced when he did get the ball. He averaged 8.6 yards on 31 carries as a freshman in 2009 and 5.6 yards on 58 carries as a sophomore, when he also ran for seven touchdowns despite suffering an injury to his right ankle when he collided with Alabama’s Trent Richardson on a kickoff return.
Gillislee ran for 328 yards on 56 carries (5.9 per carry) last season despite still being bothered by the ankle injury.
"I already know when the season comes I’m going to get the ball," Gillislee said. "In the past I was told I was going to get it (and didn’t). Now I know I’m going to get it. Ain’t no telling how many times I’m going to get it, so I’m prepared."
Gillislee said he was discouraged "at times, but I just stayed humble about the whole situation, and I just knew a day like this would come, a year like this would come."
With Demps and Rainey gone, the No. 1 tailback slot was wide open in the spring and Gillislee won the job by staying healthy, proving he could pass-block (with which he struggled in his first three seasons), and being a consistent performer in practice.
"It wasn’t easy," he said. "I just knew it had a lot to do with being consistent, and I knew that every day I had to have the best practice ever. The guys that play in back of me are just as good as me, so every day I just brought it with all I got."
The 5-foot-11, 201-pound Gillislee should flourish in UF’s pro-style offense, especially because he’s a runner who thrives on contact.
"I don’t think I’ve ever seen him fall backwards when he’s being tackled," linebacker Lerentee McCray said. "He definitely fights for that extra yard every time he’s in the game.
"With Gillislee, you’ve just got to bring your hat. You have to be more physical."
McCray said he has no doubt that Gillislee will be a 1,000-yard rusher, especially because he believes Gillislee is flying under the radar a bit in a league that includes South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore, Arkansas’ Knile Davis and Vanderbilt’s Zac Stacy.
"He’s going to go out and have an explosive season," McCray said. "People aren’t expecting him. He’s kind of the underdog right now. They’re underrating him, but he’s definitely going to go out and have a great season."
The Gators’ success will depend on it. With the uncertain situation at quarterback -- Jeff Driskel and Jacoby Brissett will begin fall practice neck-and-neck in the race to be the starter -- and the lack of playmakers at receiver, Gillislee could pretty much end up being the offense.
"We’re expecting him to have an outstanding year, and I think if he does have an outstanding year we’ll have an outstanding year," Muschamp said.