Florida running back Mike Gillislee bulldozes way from obscurity to prominence

Every week, Florida sends running back Mike Gillislee straight into a crowded mess of tangled linemen and expects him to find profit.

Sometimes he slips through the traffic jam and sprints into spacious clearings. On other handoffs, he scrapes and barrels his way to a yard or two.

But he rarely comes up empty.

“If it’s third-and-2 and he gets stopped at the line, he can grind out 2 yards,” Gators receiver Frankie Hammond said. “Little things like that mean a lot for us. He can just keep moving and fall forward and get that extra yard or two that we need.”

Gillislee, a senior, has emerged from obscurity to be one of the biggest surprises in the country. As No. 3 Florida prepares to face No. 9 South Carolina at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on Saturday (3:30 p.m.), he is the SEC’s top running back.

It seemed unlikely that he would ever be mentioned in the same class as South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore, a perennial Heisman Trophy candidate, but he has been the better of the two this season. Gillislee leads all SEC running backs with 102.5 rushing yards per game, 12th best among running backs in major conferences. Lattimore, who will be limited by a hip injury and might not start Saturday, is averaging 83.4 yards.

“There are few guys that have improved their draft stock more this year than Gillislee,” said ESPN analyst Todd McShay, who projected him as undrafted in the summer but now has him as a fourth-round pick.

Florida (6-0, 5-0 SEC) and South Carolina (6-1, 4-1) both count on their sturdy running backs to carry the offense. The winner of Saturday’s game will have a firm grip on the SEC Eastern Division.

The most impressive aspect of Gillislee’s breakout season is that he didn’t change his approach to reach those lofty statistics. His play is indicative of his personality: quiet, patient, direct.

His runs are gritty, not pretty. He does not race wide to the sideline like Jeff Demps or side step defenders like Chris Rainey. Mostly, Gillislee drives straight into the defense, which is why he rarely loses yardage.

Out of 120 carries this year, he has been dropped for a loss on six plays for a total of 9 yards. That means he gets back to the line of scrimmage 95 percent of the time. He has gained at least 1 yard on 84 percent of his attempts.

The last men — it took two, of course — to stick him behind the line of scrimmage were Tennessee linebackers Herman Lathers and Willie Bohannon, and that was more than a month ago. Since then, he has run 74 straight times without losing ground.

“He’s not stuttering his feet in the hole,” Gators offensive coordinator Brent Pease said. “He understands the blocking scheme. He’s hitting the hole. Sometimes you’ve got to push your own guys and they’ll continue to make the pile move. And then he’s not a guy that’s going to go down easy.”

Lattimore, a junior, has similar strengths. He has been stopped for negative yards seven times in 129 carries and had a streak of 44 straight without a loss earlier this season.

They traveled different roads to this point. Lattimore needed less than three years to break South Carolina’s career record for touchdowns, and he got more carries in his first seven games than Gillislee had in his first three seasons.

Last year, as the Gators stumbled to 7-6, they relied on Rainey and Demps. They were tremendously talented but ill-suited for the power running game coach Will Muschamp wanted to implement. At 5-feet-11, 209 pounds, Gillislee is built for it.

“Should have played him more last year,” Muschamp said. “I admit that.”

Gillislee got the ball just 56 times in 2011. He topped that in the first three weeks this season.

He is averse to attention, which made him an odd choice for Muschamp to bring to SEC Media Days in July. He says little but is bold. At Media Days, he stated flatly that he aspired for 1,500 yards and 24 touchdowns.

If Lattimore had said it, there would have been serious debate over whether he could get there. It seemed ludicrous from Gillislee.

He probably won’t hit those lofty goals, but they no longer sound so crazy. His current 615 yards and seven touchdowns put him on pace for 13-game totals of 1,333 and 15. The yardage would be UF’s best since Emmitt Smith in 1989, and the touchdowns would be a single-season record for Gators running backs.

“He just runs hard,” right tackle Chaz Green said. “He’s relentless. … It makes us want to block even harder.”