- Mike DiRocco, ESPN Staff Writer
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida’s current situation at running back is nothing that anyone -- not even coach Will Muschamp -- would have ever imagined.
As the Gators begin preparations today for the Aug. 31 season opener against Toledo, the depth chart looks like this:
Projected starter Matt Jones has yet to practice because of a viral infection.
The player who has been working with the first team is redshirt junior Mack Brown, who has just 40 career carries after signing with UF in 2010 as the nation’s No. 4 running back.
The next player in line is sophomore Mark Herndon, a former walk-on special teams player who was awarded a scholarship on Tuesday.
Behind Herndon is redshirt sophomore Valdez Showers, who was a safety until last week.
It’s that last part that’s the most surprising considering there was some thought that Taylor, who enrolled in January, was going to beat out Jones for the starting job during the spring. Instead, he and Lane will get just scraps of playing time because they have yet to prove their reliability.
"No. 1 is ball security," Muschamp said. "You’ve got to take care of the football. That’s the number one thing. They’re very talented runners [but] so much more goes into it other than just running the football. … We like to make sure the quarterback is protected.
"They’ve got to take a step. Very pleased with both guys. They’re going to help us this year. How much, their role, will depend on how they continue to develop. It’s a long season."
Obviously the Gators want the 6-foot-2, 226-pound Jones back as soon as possible. He underwent blood work on Monday and was out on the practice field for 10-15 minutes on Tuesday but still has not been cleared to practice. Muschamp said UF is preparing to play the Rockets without Jones, who had a fantastic spring and was named a preseason All-SEC third-team selection.
"All I know is he is progressing very well," said Muschamp, who is scheduled to meet with the media on Friday and provide another update. "I get a daily update. He feels good. He’s doing more and more every day from a workout standpoint, and that’s all I know. We’re playing it by ear and every day we have a staff meeting, we have an injury report and he [the trainer] gives me an update."
Brown has been a disappointment since he signed, mainly because he was hobbled by a hamstring injury and a broken ankle. His biggest contribution came in last season’s game against Texas A&M when he carried the ball four times for 11 yards to help the Gators run out the final 3:13 and preserve a 20-17 victory.
Herndon is the surprise considering he has played in just six games (all last season) on special teams. He ran for 1,600 yards and 19 touchdowns as a high school senior and Muschamp mentioned him as a standout in the spring, but to be the No. 2 back heading into the season opener is not something for which Muschamp would have hoped.
"Coach Muschamp always talks about ‘man down, man up’ and I just felt like it was an opportunity," Herndon said. "It (Jones’ viral infection) was really unfortunate. Me and Matt are teammates, so we talk and hang out. I was sad, but if he’s down, I’ve got to step up because the team needs me.
"That’s what I did. I tried to push Mack Brown. He’s the No. 1, so I tried to push him and keep him on his toes. I didn’t want anybody slacking."
Showers fell behind junior Jabari Gorman and redshirt freshman Marcus Maye in the battle for playing time at safety and was moved to running back last week. It’s not unfamiliar territory because he was a running back and cornerback at Detroit Madison, where he rushed for 3,596 yards and 49 touchdowns in his final two seasons.
Showers was heavily involved with the first-team offense, especially in the passing game, during UF’s open practices and Muschamp said the move is permanent.
"He's got great top-end speed. He's got really good ball skills," Muschamp said. "He can do a lot of different things for us as far as lining up at receiver, lining up in the backfield. A tough guy to account for a defensive coordinator. Been very pleased with what he's added for us offensively."
Muschamp will be more pleased when Jones returns. If that doesn’t happen within the next day or so, it might be too late for Jones to be prepared to play against Toledo. His season debut might then have to come against Miami on Sept. 7.
"Any time you have something like this and you’re in uncharted waters and you’re uncertain of it, you always plan without the player," Muschamp said. "If the player’s there, it’s great. That’s gravy for everybody."
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