Mike Gillislee leading Florida Gators rush progress

Mike Gillislee leading Florida Gators rush progress

September 12th, 2012 by David Paschall in Sports - College

Florida running back Mike Gillislee (23) is seen in this file photo.

Florida running back Mike Gillislee (23) is seen...

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

Steve Spurrier coached Florida to six Southeastern Conference football championships and one national title nearly a generation ago, while Urban Meyer more recently guided the Gators to two national championships in a three-year stretch.

The high-water mark for current Florida coach Will Muschamp is on a smaller scale. In the final three minutes and 13 seconds of last week's game at Texas A&M, Muschamp took great pleasure in watching his Gators run out the clock in clinching a 20-17 win over the Aggies.

"It's the happiest moment in Florida history for me," Muschamp said afterward.

Florida's transition to a pro-style offense from the spread that Meyer employed is showing tangible signs of productivity as the No. 18 Gators prepare for another road trip this week at No. 23 Tennessee.

The Gators are averaging 181 rushing yards a game this season behind senior tailback Mike Gillislee after averaging 143 yards a game last year, when they were led by the diminutive but speedy tandem of Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps. Rainey is now with the Pittsburgh Steelers, while Demps is on injured reserve with the New England Patriots.

Gillislee, a 5-foot-11, 201-pound senior from DeLand, Fla., has rushed 38 times for 231 yards this season and is on an early pace to become Florida's first 1,000-yard rusher since Ciatrick Fason in 2004.

"Will is starting to get his team to look like what he wants his team to look like," Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said. "They're pro-style and they're multi-formational, so they're going to get you out-flanked and try to be physical at the line of scrimmage with a heavy back. That's his philosophy, and they're starting to play Muschamp ball."

Gillislee rushed for 328 yards each of the past two seasons and entered this year with a career average per carry of 6.3 yards. He strained his groin at Texas A&M but has practiced this week and is expected to be full strength in Knoxville.

"Last year we felt comfortable with Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps," said Muschamp, who is coming off a less-than-riveting 7-6 debut season. "We were a little different schematically last year, but it wasn't that we weren't confident in Mike."

Florida has won seven straight meetings against Tennessee, and the Gators have led the Volunteers in rushing on each occasion. The Gators had 134 rushing yards to Tennessee's minus-9 in last season's 33-23 victory in Gainesville, and Florida had a 255-37 rushing bulge in its 59-20 romp in 2007.

The Gators rushed 38 times for more than 200 yards last week with sacks excluded, and they had eight carries for 10 or more yards, including a 21-yard keeper by quarterback Jeff Driskel on the final drive.

Driskel completed 13 of 16 passes for 162 yards in his first career start, and he rushed for 52 yards on six carries excluding sacks. The Aggies sacked Driskel eight times.

"I've got to get rid of the ball quicker and not lock into my first read," Driskel said. "That has something to do with me being the new guy. I've got to throw the ball away and live another day."

Muschamp hopes Driskel will use better judgment as well when choosing to collide with defenders, but the 6-4, 232-pound sophomore said, "I'm bigger than most of those guys out there, so I can take a hit or two."

The Gators are not heading to Tennessee as an offensive juggernaut by any stretch -- Brent Pease is the program's fourth offensive coordinator in five years -- but they seem to be leaving the woes of the past two seasons behind. Florida averaged 64 plays a game in wins over Bowling Green (27-14) and Texas A&M after ranking dead last among Bowl Subdivision teams last season with a 60.7 average.

Time of possession has been the most abrupt change, with Florida averaging 34:08 this season compared to 28:19 last year.

"We're going to have a lot of games like this," Muschamp said after topping the Aggies. "That's just who we are. Sometimes you have to put your realistic glasses on. We're going to grind it out, and we're going to win.

"When they knew we were going to run it, we ran it."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.