Jordan Scarlett plants his right foot and takes one step forward, but something stops him.
Behind him stretches an elastic band, well over 10 feet, attached to his waist and impeding his momentum.
Steadily, he takes one step forward and then another, and as he receives the command from his coach, Scarlett bursts forward with a jolt of energy and a pained expression, his knees pumping up and down, his hands gripped tightly around the football at his chest.
“Good,” Florida running backs coach Tim Skipper says, and then jogs toward the others.
Behind Scarlett is his competition: Florida running backs Mark Thompson, Jordan Cronkrite and Mark Herndon. All four are competing for carries in UF’s backfield, but on an early morning practice last Thursday, three of them are resigned to watching, standing with their hands on their hips in the sweltering heat, patiently waiting for their turn with Skipper.
According to UF’s coaches, all four are capable runners. They all can catch the ball out of the backfield, and they all display quick feet and above average rushing instincts.
And yet, since 2000, only twice has Florida had four running backs all reach 200 yards in a single season.
That fact isn’t lost on Scarlett.
“There’s only one ball,” Scarlett said. “Hey, it’s the best man wins.”
Florida’s running back group is a hodgepodge of young talent, veteran leadership, quick feet and heavy-set shoulders. And, according to head coach Jim McElwain, it’s also the most tightly contested competition among UF’s position groups, with four potential starters on the depth chart.
Scarlett, a sophomore, rushed for 181 yards last season, ceding most of the team’s carries to its leading rusher and current San Francisco 49er Kelvin Taylor. Cronkrite, also a sophomore, was close behind Scarlett at 151 rushing yards.
Next is redshirt senior Mark Herndon, who has never carried the ball more than four times in a season. Thompson, a junior college transfer, has never carried the ball in a Division I game.
And yet, all four are adamant they will receive significant playing time this season.
“Realistically, there’s always one guy who is gonna have more carries than anyone else, and that’s on any football team on any level,” Thompson said. “But I do believe everyone will get carries, and I do believe everyone will contribute and make a huge impact in the running game.”
McElwain is familiar with playing multiple ball carriers, and has stressed the advantages of a large backfield since the start of Florida’s preseason practice on Aug. 4.
In 2010 as offensive coordinator at Alabama, McElwain oversaw a running attack that featured Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy — two first round NFL Draft picks and one second rounder, respectively. Each scored at least six touchdowns that season.
“Sometimes they have all these people in their ear. Like, ‘you should be toatin’ it 35 times,'” McElwain said of Florida’s running backs. “You’re ability to spread it around is something that’s only gonna help you in the long run. It’s hard sometimes for guys to see that, and yet the great ones do.”
“I think they’ll do running back by committee,” starting quarterback Luke Del Rio said.
With the competition so close, splitting carries may be Florida’s best option.
UF’s veteran players have refused to predict a starter and consistently heap praise on each member of UF’s backfield, especially the 6-foot-2, 237 pound Thompson.
Redshirt senior defensive lineman Bryan Cox called Thompson “a big-time SEC back” and lauded both Cronkrite and Scarlett for being “explosive runners.”
Junior offensive lineman David Sharpe called the running back competition “Crazy. I don’t know who’s going to start.”
And even freshman running back Lamical Perine — the rarely talked-about fifth member of UF’s backfield — has exceeded McElwain’s expectations with his play through just over two weeks of fall practice.
“I feel like we’re the strongest position on our team,” Cronkrite said.
McElwain thinks so, too. He has repeatedly stated that this year’s running back group may be the most impressive he has ever been around.
But the challenge, he said, is utilizing all of them in Florida’s offense. McElwain has tried designing specific formations just to get as many running backs as possible on the field at one time.
And even though the most likely route for UF’s backfield is one that involves a committee approach, with multiple players receiving playing time, all four rushers think one will separate himself from the rest.
And all four think they will be the one to do it.
“I feel like everybody on the field is expecting to be that guy,” Thompson said. “So to tell you no would be a lie.”