- Mark Schlabach, ESPN Senior Writer
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Each time Florida football coach Urban Meyer bumped into tailback Emmanuel Moody during the offseason, the conversation started the same.
"Boy, I hope you're really, really good," Meyer would tell the Southern California transfer.
Moody, who sat out the 2007 season after leaving the Trojans, would just shake his head and laugh.
"He said it to me every day," Moody said. "After a few times, I was like, 'Enough, Coach, that's enough.'"
But as the Gators prepare to finish spring practice with Saturday's Orange and Blue game at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, Meyer still wonders how good his team's new tailback really is. Moody, who led the Trojans in rushing in each of his first three games and was named Pac-10 Conference Freshman of the Year in 2006, has struggled to adapt to the Gators' spread offense.
After three weeks of spring practice, Moody remains lost in translation. Nearly everything seems different going from "Tailback U." to "Spread U." Moody has struggled running the football out of the shotgun, which he had never done before, and still seems confused about where to line up and which direction to run. The Texas native is even struggling with Florida's stifling heat and humidity.
"It's hot out there, you know?" said Moody, a native of Coppell, Texas. "I'm used to the humidity and heat in Texas, but I've never been in heat like this."
Wait until the 2008 season begins, when Florida fans are counting on Moody to become a workhorse tailback, something the Gators have lacked during Meyer's tenure.
When Moody abruptly left USC in August because he was near the bottom of the Trojans' stockpile of running backs, he instantly was thought to be Florida's savior. The Gators won big during Meyer's first three seasons, but largely did so without productive tailbacks. Florida ranked 23rd nationally and third in the SEC in rushing with 200.15 yards per game last season. Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Tim Tebow led the Gators with 895 rushing yards and 23 touchdowns. Speedy receiver Percy Harvin was second with 764 rushing yards and six touchdowns.
All told, Florida's tailbacks accounted for only 25 percent of the team's rushing yards in 2007. The Gators' quarterbacks and receivers also scored 85 percent of the team's rushing touchdowns.
When coach Meyer recruited me, he told me Percy and Tebow were running the ball a lot because they felt like they didn't have the tailbacks. I'm not coming in here saying I'm going to be the quick fix, but I came here with the expectations that I can really help out in that area.
--Florida RB Emmanuel Moody
With Tebow lowering his head and hitting anyone in sight, Florida's running game vastly improved last season. During the 2006 season, when the Gators beat Ohio State 41-14 in the BCS Championship Game to win the school's second national championship in football, they ranked 38th nationally with 160 rushing yards per game. Florida was 56th nationally and fifth in the SEC in rushing with only 146.75 yards per game during Meyer's first season in 2005.
Meyer said he doesn't care which player runs the football this coming season, as long as the Gators run it well. Meyer said his goal each season is for Florida to run for at least 1,700 yards, and really doesn't care how much of the production comes from tailbacks.
"When we line up Percy Harvin in the backfield, he's one of the best tailbacks in America," Meyer said.
So is Tebow, who ran the ball 210 times last season, more than twice as many carries as Kestahn Moore, the team's leading tailback, who ran for 580 yards and six touchdowns in 2007. Moore, a senior from Arlington, Texas, carried 53 times in the first four games last season. But Moore was plagued by fumbles and ran six times or fewer in seven of the last nine games.
"What we always want to do is to use what we have," Florida offensive coordinator Dan Mullen said. "Wherever we've been, and I've been with [Meyer] at Bowling Green and Utah, we always tweak the system to what we have. At Utah, we had two big tailbacks and they both ran for more than 700 yards. Since we've been here, we haven't had a big, dominating tailback. We've had some fast guys. We just want the best players out there. If we have two great tailbacks, we'll play two tailbacks. If we have one great tailback that's really fast, we'll try to get him on the edge. If we have a big tailback that's really powerful, we'll let him take the inside runs. We're looking for that flexibility so we can match to the personnel we have in our program."
No Gator has been better at running the football than Tebow, who last season became the first sophomore to win the Heisman Trophy. Tebow ran the ball at least 10 times in 11 of 13 games in 2007, including 27 carries in a 30-24 win at Ole Miss and 26 carries in a 51-31 victory at South Carolina.
"Right now, I'm as healthy as I've been since I've been in college, which feels really good," Tebow said. "I feel 100 percent and ready to go. I'm more healthy now than I was going into last season. Some of the runs we'll save for certain situations, but you're playing football. You're going to get hit. You can't worry about that. The day you start worrying about whether you're going to get hit and hurt is the day you'll get hurt. It's very, very true. You just have to go out there and play and not even worry about it."
Mullen said Tebow might run the football as often this coming season, even though he probably was hit more often than any quarterback in the country in 2007.
"Tim can take those hits, but you just don't want him to take those big hits," Mullen said. "Part of what you want to do is save him and keep him fresh for when he needs to run. As a quarterback, any hit you take standing in the pocket can ruin your day. I think he's really more protected when he's actually running the ball because he's delivering a lot of the blows instead of taking them. I think one of the things we need to do is make sure he doesn't carry the ball all the time in the first half. If we can save his carries, as the game moves on and if we want to kill the clock in the fourth quarter, then he's fresh and not worn down from carrying it so much in the first half."
For that to happen, Moody might have to improve quickly. The sophomore was one of the country's most highly recruited players in 2005, and he chose the Trojans over scholarship offers from Texas, Texas A&M, Miami and dozens of other schools. When he decided to leave USC after only one season, Moody also considered transferring to Texas, Oklahoma State or North Carolina.
"When coach Meyer recruited me, he told me Percy and Tebow were running the ball a lot because they felt like they didn't have the tailbacks," Moody said. "I'm not coming in here saying I'm going to be the quick fix, but I came here with the expectations that I can really help out in that area. We have great backs, even though they say there isn't a lot of production. There are great backs here at Florida. The reason why there hasn't been production, I really don't know why."
Mullen isn't sure why Moody hasn't been more productive this spring. After enrolling at Florida last fall, Moody was allowed to practice and attend team meetings. The coaching staff expected him to have a good grasp of the offense once spring practice began.
"He's struggling picking it up, which is the only frustrating thing for the staff right now," Mullen said. "I see flashes. He's showing toughness and is running the ball hard. He's just not playing at full speed all the time because he's not comfortable with everything that's going on. He's a smart guy. He's very analytical, so if he doesn't understand what's going on, it doesn't flow naturally. Some guys just go out and play, but he needs to know what he's doing."
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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