April 21, 2006

Meyer still searching for an answer in backfield

The spring has been a lesson in humility for Florida's running backs. Or at the very least, a wake-up call.

Florida coach Urban Meyer called the running game trash before the start of spring. A few weeks later, he elevated former walk-on Billy Latsko, a linebacker-turned-fullback, to first-string tailback for a scrimmage.

Florida is hoping something will jolt the lackluster running game, which produced only two 100-yard individual rushing games last year and averaged 3.9 yards per carry.

"I get very upset thinking about that position," Meyer said before the start of spring practice. "That's not what I expected. If that continues, we'll play without a tailback. I'm not going to sit and watch that trash I watched last year."

DeShawn Wynn, Markus Manson and Kestahn Moore return to last year's No. 5 rushing offense in the Southeastern Conference. Only Skyler Thornton, who transferred to Valdosta State, is missing.

Given a chance last season, none of those backs took hold of the starting job. The three combined to rush for four fewer yards than Ciatrick Fason's 1,267 yards in 2004.

The competition, for the spring at least, will wrap up Saturday with the Orange and Blue game. Florida would like one player to take control of the job, but there seems to be a negative for each positive a back possesses.

  • Moore opened the spring on top of the depth chart after starting three games last year - including the Outback Bowl. However, the rising sophomore has missed time this spring with a bulging disc in his back.
  • Wynn is the most experienced of the group and was Florida's leading rusher with 621 yards last year. He escaped Meyer's doghouse and a suspension for the opener to start six games last year. The downside: Wynn frustrated his coaches because of his inconsistency.
  • Manson was second on the team with 81 carries last year and showed flashes of his speed. However, he missed time early this spring with a concussion and drew some criticism for being tackled too easily.
  • "Whoever that guy is and we're still looking for him we're looking for that one guy who can put it all together," running backs coach Stan Drayton told GatorBait.net. "I'm still searching. I've got pieces, but I just don't have the whole puzzle yet."

    If Meyer's "trashing" of the running backs early in spring didn't provide a little motivation, then the coaching staff hopes Latsko will.

    A walk-on in 2002 until he earned a scholarship in 2004, Latsko played fullback, H-back and linebacker last year. Coaches ran the hard-working senior at tailback with the first team in Saturday's scrimmage.

    Latsko likely won't be the answer as a full-time tailback, but Florida hopes his leadership and toughness will rub off on the others.

    "Billy Latsko is the no-brainer of the group," Drayton said. "He's starting to become the vocal leader of that group, which is huge for our position."

    If Wynn, Manson and Moore need more of a push, the competition could become more heated in the fall.

    True freshman Mon Williams will arrive on campus, and another true freshman, Chevon Walker, will return to the mix after being limited in spring by injuries. Both were four-star recruits by Rivals.com in the Class of 2006.

    "We're just taking that as a challenge and just keep going," Manson said. "Coach Meyer must see something in us that we have to improve on, so we just have to keep improving."

    For more coverage of the Florida Gators, check out GatorBait.net.


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