FLORIDA FOOTBALL & RECRUITING COVERAGE
As the Florida Gators players prepare for the fall, we look back over the spring practices and Orange and Blue Game with former players as each recaps what he saw from his respective positional unit and what he expects from them this fall in our annual F-Club series.
While the Ron Zook era doesn’t usually evoke positive memories among Gators fans, one of the bright spots of those teams was Ciatrick Fason. The running back from Neptune Beach, Florida, arrived at UF in 2002 as a five-star recruit, making him one of just two five-stars Florida has signed at the position this century (Kelvin Taylor being the other). Fason’s career got off to a bit of a slow start before he broke out as one of the SEC’s stars as a junior.
In 2004, he led the conference with 1,267 yards on 222 carries. He finished second in the league with 12 touchdowns. He reached the 1,000-yard mark in his ninth game. Only Emmitt Smith, Jimmy Dubose and Errict Rhett reached the mark in fewer games. He was named First Team All-SEC by the Associated Press.
He played in all 37 games of his three-year career, with 15 starts. He carried the ball 298 times for 1,783 yards (6.0 avg.) and scored 14 rushing touchdowns. He also added 368 yards and five scores receiving.
He played two seasons with the Minnesota Vikings and was member of the Jacksonville Jaguars for five days in 2008. Fason, now 36, currently lives in Jacksonville and runs Star-Ready, a youth league that offers football and AAU basketball to kids ages 5-14.
“C-4” took some time to talk with Inside the Gators about Lamical Perine, his thoughts on rotating running backs rather than having a bell cow, his opinion of Dan Mullen’s offense, his expectations for the 2019 Gators and more.
What are your overall thoughts on the Gators’ group of running backs this year?
“I love them. I honestly think this the best group of backs we done had in a while, in some years. As a group and as a whole, I’ll go back and say it’s probably the best since I was in school with me, Ran Carthon and Deshawn Wynn.”
What do you like about them?
“The depth and the balance of everyone. They all are different. That’s what makes the group so special. [Malik] Davis, man, he’s very explosive. He missed last year, but we was missing his explosive ability. That kid can make a homerun play anytime. I even like the Iverson Clement kid. I got a chance to talk to him a little bit right before spring practice started. Kid got an attitude. So, he’s smaller stature, but the kid’s about business. [Damon] Pierce runs hard, and last year as a freshman for what he did, that was huge. He’s only going to get better going forward. And I’ve always been a [Lamical] Perine fan. I think Perine just does all the dirty work, and he could get you the homerun or he could go out there and get you the tough yards. So, I think those guys, just being very different from one another, just makes them so special as a unit.”
Perine isn’t the biggest or fastest guy. How impressive is it that he just always seems to run hard and get yards?
“It’s very impressive, especially these days. Some kids like to try to dodge contact more than usual, and Perine, he’s going to take whatever’s given. If you’re going to give him a shoulder to hit, he’s going to hit that shoulder. He runs with an attitude. I always say linebackers hate people that run with an attitude. I think Perine noticed that, and he picked up on it as a freshman. I’ve been following him since his senior year in high school, and I just like how that kid runs, just having an attitude and even with his breakaway ability. He tends to put that shoulder on you early in the games and then decides ‘OK, now it’s time to break one.’ I just love the heart he has, and that takes a lot from a running back to want to take on that contact these days.”
Do you think he’s ready to take on a bigger workload now that he doesn’t have somebody like Jordan Scarlett to split carries with him?
“Most definitely. I thought it was time for him to take on a bigger workload, to be honest with you, last year, but we know Scarlett came back and Scarlett was a good running back. But, I thought it was time for Perine to take on a more heavier load last year. I think Coach Mullen does a great job on using those guys the way he does, and I don’t know how much more of a load he will have this year because Pierce has emerged and you got Davis coming back. I know they might use Davis a little more in the passing game, but I think just giving Perine a couple more extra carries could definitely help our offense. He can help us win big games because that kid can control the game.”
What are your expectations for Perine this year? Can he get 1,000 yards?
“I definitely think Perine can get to 1,000 yards. I think if Perine healthy and he plays every game this year, I think it’ll be easy for him to get 1,000 yards just cause of how hard he runs. Linebackers don’t like to hit guys that run hard. I think if he’s healthy, he could definitely get 1,000 yards and just join that 1,000-yard club. I also think Malik Davis is probably going to get close. I mean, he’s a homerun threat. So, if we get a chance, we might have [two] 1,000 backs for us in the backfield this year. So, I’m just looking forward to seeing those guys, and, hopefully, they stay healthy and just see those guys make the most of their opportunities.”
Do you like the way Dan Mullen rotates his running backs to keep everyone fresh, or would you prefer to go into a game knowing you’re going to get the ball 20-25 times?
“I like how he rotates. I rotated my whole career. Even my last year when I ended up leading the SEC in rushing, I rotated. It’s just the way that they rotate; it keeps you fresh. But, fourth quarter, I always knew, [Ron] Zook always told me ‘Fourth quarter, it’s your time.’ When you rotate those guys early, you go with the hot hand late. So, I think it helps them. In these days, these linebackers, these linemen, they’re only getting bigger, stronger and faster, so you don’t want to wear a back out early, and he’s used goods two or three years from now. So, I think he does a great job on rotating his backs, and I think it actually will benefit them, especially if they want to play longer down the road, and it benefits them when the fourth quarter comes in college football. So, I love what he got going on with those backs.”
Besides the obvious, what are the challenges with running behind an almost entirely new offensive line like they’re going to do this year?
“Just knowing tendencies, big tendencies. Like when I was at Florida, we had Mike Degory, Max Starks, Shannon Snell. It was a couple of linemen, and when it was time to replace them, you just had to know tendencies. If you know what they going to call when they get a certain look, they don’t even have to call it. You just automatically know it. Or, in pass [protection], you don’t know where a lineman likes to turn his body to give leverage. That’s probably the biggest challenge when it comes to that pass protection. Run blocking is easy to pick up on, but, when it comes to pass pro, you don’t know where a guy’s going to turn that butt, where he’s going to turn his hip, where he wants you to hit him at. So, you kind of got to adjust to the new guys, but, you know, they’ve been working with some of these new linemen for the last couple years [in practice]. Some of the guys just been waiting for their opportunity. So, some of these backs have already been able to play with that line. It’s just all about paying attention to those linemen back when they was practicing years ago. I think just the biggest challenge is them knowing the pass-blocking tendencies of each lineman.”
What did you like about Dameon Pierce last year?
“Man, that kid came in and he didn’t look nervous. I think that kid came in with the intention that ‘I want to make plays, and I want to help this team win.’ The kid just stayed patient, never had any issues, never bickered about his carries even when he did good. He might not have got the same number of carries that he got in one game, but that kid always stayed patient. When he got his opportunities, his yards-per-carry (6.1) showed for itself. That kid was just ready to play football and make plays. That’s what I love about him; the kid came in and ran hard and just was patient. It looked like he was just excited to play football for the University of Florida.”
With him being as physical of a runner as he is, how big of a weapon can he be in the second half when the defense is starting to wear down?
“When they're worn down in the second half, you give him the ball, nobody’s going to hit him. Running backs know that, and I think that’s going to make it easier for him with all three of the running backs being able to break down a defense, and then when the defense broke down, [Mullen] said, ‘All right, Pierce. Here you go. Your time to shine.’ You can be in the third quarter and go in a four-minute drill. That’s run the ball, get first downs, run the ball, get first downs. Eventually, he’s going to start breaking them. So, I think having him as a weapon along with his speed and power, man, that kid’s going to be dangerous this year.”
Malik Davis has obviously struggled with injuries in his first two seasons. How tough is it mentally to come back from two major injuries?
“I never had any major injuries, but I’ve been around players at the pro level and the college level, and they always tell me it’s always on their mind because they know what they can do but they always want to be careful about the injury. So, they’re careful about how they run, but one thing I’d tell Malik, ‘Just go out there and run. Your skills speak for itself. Injuries happen, and the times when we worried about getting hurt, that’s when we get hurt.’ I think he’ll be all right. He had some fluke injuries that many of us don’t get, but I think he’ll definitely be all right. I heard he’s been working his butt off because I still talk to Vernell [Brown] and Keiwan [Ratliff] from time to time. I heard he’s working his butt off, so I’m looking forward to seeing the kid run, and I think he’s going to be injury-free this year. I think he’s going to be OK mentally.”
For a freshman like Nay’Quan Wright, what are the biggest adjustments from high school to college?
“I think the biggest adjustment for him is going to be speed of the game. You never know how fast the game is from watching TV or just being out there or even practicing. The practice speed is pretty fast in college, but, when you get in the game, it’s super fast because you don’t get used to those other guys you’re going against on Saturdays. You can get used to your teammates; you don’t get used to those other guys. I think the biggest adjustment is going to be him trying to slow the game down, not move too fast. If he can do those things, he’ll be all right, and that’s the biggest challenge for running backs, just slowing the game down in their head and don’t move too fast.”
What are your thoughts on Mullen as a head coach after one season?
“Mullen’s a great head coach. That’s my guy. I got a chance to sit down with Mullen his last year at Mississippi State to just talk football. I know how passionate he is about just players, your family and winning. When he was given an opportunity to take over the program, I was excited. I say, you know, we got somebody in there who wants to be a Gator. It’s a difference from just taking the Gator job, but it’s somebody who wants to be a Gator and see the program succeed. That’s huge. You can just tell by all the work he’s doing – going out in the community, calling all the old alumni guys back and asking everybody to come back and just talk to the players or just come around. Just him doing that, bringing a lot of energy back, I think Mullen’s a great head coach. His track record shows, second and third year, that guy turns programs around. He did it in his first year at UF, so, if you give him time, a national championship is going to come just because he’s that type of coach and he’s that type of coach that people want to be around, alumni want to be around and players want to play for.”
What do you like about his offense?
“It’s not predictable. You never know what you’re going to get from Mullen. When you can keep a defense on its heels, it makes it that much easier for each offensive player. He’s not predictable at all. He’s going to keep it fun, he’s going to keep the fans entertained and he’s going to score points. And he’s patient with his players. He don’t give up on his players fast at all. So, that’s what I love about our offense, just bringing back that energy and bringing back that expectation in Mullen to score every play just because he’s not predictable.”
Mullen likes to use the quarterback in the running game a lot. Does that open things up a little bit for the running backs?
“Most definitely, especially with the quarterbacks he always has. He always has them big quarterbacks, so you get one linebacker trying to hit them quarterbacks that he usually has – they can’t tackle them by their self. Two linebackers have to go at the quarterback, so that leaves the running back one guy. It always makes it easier, and then you got to account for them with a safety or a linebacker. Somebody got to be in the box watching that quarterback, and it takes an extra man off the running back. Plus, he does it with quarterbacks that can run the ball and that have nice size. It’s always a plus for the running back when you got a quarterback that’s a dual-threat.”
Looking at the whole team now, what do you think are the biggest keys to success this season?
“First, I think our receiver corps. Man, we might have the deepest receiver corps in the country, even with guys that haven’t even touched the field yet. I’m excited to see those receivers, and I think they’re going to be very, very important because I can see [Feleipe] Franks growing, and I think this is a Heisman candidate type of year for Franks. I also think, on the defensive side of the ball, our defensive backs. I think we’re going to stop the run no matter who we put at linebacker or D-Line, but our defensive backs, we always cover with the best of them. I think defensive backs and our receiver corps is going to set our team apart from many others around the country.”
What are your expectations for what the team can accomplish this season?
“My expectation for our team [is] win the SEC. I think the SEC is very winnable. I think we’re definitely going to win the East. A lot of people say what Georgia has, but they don’t ever talk about what we have as well. I think we definitely going to win the East, and I think we’re going to get a chance to complete for the SEC title, and I think it’s going to go through Alabama. It’s going to be Florida and Alabama in the SEC, and I think we’re at the point now when Mullen’s getting those boys ready to play for the SEC title. He’s not worried about a national championship. The No. 1 goal at Florida has always been ‘Let’s win the SEC.’ I think that’s what he’s focused on right now. I think it’s a great possibility that we’re going to be SEC champs.”
Stay tuned to Inside the Gators for the remaining F-Club series as we talk to more former players about their respective units heading into fall camp.
Inside the Gators F-Club Positional Breakdown series isn't associated with the official University of Florida F-Club