For most former four-star running backs, redshirting as a freshman and entering their second year third on the depth chart would be considered disappointing and a source of major frustration.
But not for Nay’Quan Wright. He’s happy just to be on a college football team at all. He’s not like most college football players because most college football players haven’t endured the unimaginable adversity that he has.
When he was 11 or 12 years old, Wright was at football practice in the Miami area when shots were fired. A coach yelled for everybody to get down. A couple of bullets ricocheted off of the ground and hit he and a couple of teammates. His family initially got a call that he had died.
“It just made my connection with God pretty stronger,” Wright said. “As a person, it changed me to mainly always just move on and don’t take life for granted. I’m not going to say I was taking life for granted, but it just made me not take life for granted now, just let me know that my life is not my own. It brought my family together. My family, like any other family, go through things, so our bond is pretty stronger, as a whole.
“I’ve got a purpose in life. If it was my time, He would’ve called me home, so I feel like He’s not done with me yet. A lot of guys get shot that die instantly, and I feel like my job is not done.”
Wright recovered from this tragedy and got off to a hot start to his high school career. He won a state championship as a sophomore at Carol City High School and was ranked as a five-star prospect by some recruiting services.
Then more adversity hit.
He broke his ankle the following spring, and college programs backed off of him and went after running backs that weren’t considered as risky. Even his hometown Miami Hurricanes spurned him. Florida and Georgia were two of the programs that stuck with him, and he eventually chose the Gators.
He battled Iverson Clement for the fourth-string role last season and received just 12 carries against UT Martin, Towson and Vanderbilt. He carried the ball just five times in the first two games of this season.
The Texas A&M game served as something of a breakout game for him. He led the team with 31 yards on six carries. He scored his first career touchdown in the second quarter.
“I know the work that I’ve put in this offseason, so I knew [an opportunity] would have to unfold sooner or later,” he said. “I was just being patient, waiting.
“I’ve just been working hard for the opportunity, so, when it presented itself, I just took advantage of it.”
Head coach Dan Mullen said Wright has impressed him with his work ethic and all-around skillset.
“He’s a guy since he’s been here that takes care of his business every day,” Mullen said. “Very quiet, not the loudest guy out there. Extremely, extremely intelligent football player, and I think you can see that not just with his talent but the plays that he makes – his reads, his patience running the ball, understanding this system, how to run routes. He’s got great hands coming out of the backfield.”
Offensive coordinator Brian Johnson said Wright’s emergence adds just one more thing that opponents have to prepare for and complements the two other running backs that are seeing extensive action. Dameon Pierce is a bruising downhill runner, while Malik Davis is a lightning-quick, shifty runner. Wright is a blend of the two and also brings value as a receiver, having caught three passes for 56 yards this season.
“I think they all have different strengths,” Johnson said. “We can run an inside zone, and one guy might hammer you, one guy might bounce it, and we might pull a [run-pass option] the next time. I think just those guys having their own unique skillset and just being able to play free within the flow of the offense kind of gives us a natural balance in our run game and how we operate.
“Nay’Quan's a very talented back. He has a very versatile game. He can run in between the tackles, he can run inside, he can run outside, he can make plays in the passing game. I got a chance to know him really well during the recruiting process, and he's just an unbelievable young man that has a very good head on his shoulders. He knows exactly what he wants. He's very determined and very driven to be a great player. I'm happy we have him on our team."
About that defense …
There are many adjectives that can be used to describe the Gators’ defense so far this season with horrible, disgusting, disturbing, abominable, horrendous, repulsive, and unfathomable among them. However, none of them are strong enough to fully convey just how bad this unit has been.
The Gators have given up 100 points in a three-game stretch for the first time since 1917. For additional context, the forward pass was only about 10 years old in 1917, and touchdowns were only five years removed from being worth five points instead of six.
In UF’s loss to Texas A&M on Saturday, they surrendered points on seven of nine Aggies drives and gave up 13 conversions on 16 attempts on third and fourth downs. Their inability to provide even moderate resistance forced the offense to have to play a perfect game, which they were unable to do.
While historically bad defense has been a common theme this season, Mullen believes the three games played out very differently.
“I didn't love our effort in game one,” Mullen said. “Part of that, obviously, you're seeing they're a very explosive offense, explosive players, the tempo, getting adjusted into a game. I thought we played much better in game two defensively, and then last week, you look at some of their explosive plays. Now, did we make some mistakes? Absolutely. Do we need to be stouter at times? Absolutely. Did they make some great plays where we had a guy in great coverage and the quarterback throws a dime and they make a one-handed catch? Yes. We have a guy draped all over him, and they make a leaping catch. That's great offense, too. That's not bad defense."
As he did after the game, Mullen stated on Monday that he believes the defense’s struggles are largely a product of the coaches not putting the players in the right positions to be successful. He thinks they have the right scheme and the right coaching. However, making the perfect schematic play-call on defense doesn’t do any good if the players on the field can’t execute it. Therein lies the challenge. He spent more time than usual with the defensive staff on Sunday and went through every player on the depth chart to try to figure out where to go from here.
“We’ve got a great coaching staff, and I know our scheme is sound,” he said. “But now, as guys are performing here on a live basis within a game, there’s a lot of new faces out there for us as well. Are we putting them in a position to make plays? Even though this is sound, this guy, he’s not going to be as good at doing this; we need to put him in a position to do something that he’s going to do really well. If we struggle doing something, make sure we’re not putting those guys in that position.”
One thing that was glaringly different in the Texas A&M game than the other two games was the trouble they had stopping the run. They gave up just 3.5 yards per rush against Ole Miss and South Carolina but a staggering 5.4 to the Aggies. On a touchdown drive in the third quarter, the Aggies ran it nine times for 76 yards.
"It was interesting that they were able to do that on that drive,” Mullen said. “You look, it wasn't that case really the rest of the day. That drive, they did a good job of it, and we've got to fit better. Some of it is good offense. Some of it is getting guys in the right position. Some of it's them creating some really good matchups out there on the field.”
UF was without defensive linemen Kyree Campbell, Lamar Goods, and Khris Bogle against the Aggies. Mullen expects some of the missing defensive players to return this week.
“I think, hopefully, we're going to be a lot stouter in the run game this week,” he said.
Offense blaming only themselves
When one side of the ball is clearly performing at a far superior level than the other, it’s only natural for that side of the ball to point their fingers at the other and blame them for all of the team’s problems.
Quite frankly, UF’s offense would be completely justified if they took that approach. If you average 7.2 yards per play and score on six of eight possessions, you should win that game every single time.
Instead, the Gators’ offense has elected to take a team-first approach and evaluate what they could’ve done differently to prevent the heartbreaking loss.
“At the end of the day, you’re still on the same team,” quarterback Kyle Trask said. “The game on Saturday was a game that we should have won. Just a few plays decided the game. If we just play clean football there at the end, we’re 3-0 right now.”
A few possessions haunt them. First, after Texas A&M wore down the defense with a rushing-heavy touchdown drive to cut the UF lead to 28-24, the offense went three-and-out and punted for the only time in the game. Their next possession stalled after a promising start, and they had to settle for a game-tying 53-yard field goal by Evan McPherson. On their final possession, Davis fumbled on a play that Mullen described as a poor play call with a missed block. That mistake allowed the Aggies to have the final possession and kick the game-winning field goal on the final play.
“I think it just comes down to the little things like knowing the situations,” Trask said. “At those points in the game, the most important thing to do is just keep getting first downs, keep the clock moving, keep the ball out of the opposition’s hands. We’ve just got to be cleaner in terms of knowing where the sticks are and just playing clean football, not turning over the ball, not giving the defense opportunities to put their hands on the ball and things like that.”
Trask said that the defense’s issues haven’t made them feel any additional pressure to score every time they have the ball to keep pace. Even if the defense were to pitch a shutout, their internal expectation would remain the same.
“Our goal is to score every single time we have the football, and we look back on some of the drives we haven't scored on this season, and most of them are from us shooting ourselves in the foot,” he said. “So, if we just do our job and everybody does their 1/11th, then we should be able to score every single drive. We have the talent to do so."
Johnson said the key to achieving that extremely high standard of performance is to be mentally strong and have confidence.
“What that requires is an unbelievable discipline to be really consistent play-to-play and not let the previous play affect the next play,” Johnson said. “So, we've got to find ways to continue to develop that mindset and have guys ready to play on a consistent basis on Saturdays."