- Andrea Adelson, ESPN Staff Writer
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Miami has one clear advantage over No. 12 Florida in their matchup Saturday: a proven star-caliber running back.
Duke Johnson gives the Hurricanes a marquee name at the position, continuing a tradition that dates back to the 1980s. Florida, on the other hand, has not had a national standout at running back since Fred Taylor in 1998.
Although it is true Mike Gillislee had a 1,000-yard season for the Gators last year -- the school's first since 2004 -- you would be hard pressed to find anybody outside the state who could name him.
For Florida, it has been a constant battle to find a consistent running back. There have been a few since Taylor left: Earnest Graham, Ciatrick Fason, DeShawn Wynn.
But in the years after Wynn, quarterback Tim Tebow and receiver Percy Harvin made the running game go. Backs such as Kestahn Moore and Emmanuel Moody merely served as window dressing.
Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey were not big backs, but coach Will Muschamp and former coach Urban Meyer tried to get a lot out of them. They were simply never big enough to truly carry the load.
The Gators, however, do have hope that they have a guy in Matt Jones who can reverse the recent trend and become a heralded standout. Jones makes his debut this weekend for the Gators, after missing last week with a viral infection. He could end up doing what Johnson has done for Miami.
The Hurricanes have a proud running back tradition, with eight backs drafted in the first four rounds since 1990. But they did not have much in the way of a marquee national player before Johnson, either. Between 2003 and 2012, Miami had only one 1,000-yard back: Lamar Miller in 2011.
Johnson came close to 1,000 yards last year, splitting time with Mike James while earning acclaim as one of the top freshmen in the country. He opened the season against FAU last week with 186 yards -- the highest rushing total in the entire nation in Week 1. He even picked up a vote in the ESPN.com Heisman Watch.
Florida recruited Johnson out of high school. Muschamp calls him a complete back.
"You have to be disciplined in your gaps. He's a guy who can take the ball anywhere," Muschamp said.
Indeed, the most intriguing matchup in this game is between Johnson and the Gators' defense, a formidable group against the run.
Consider this stat from ESPN Stats & Information: The Gators have given up just two rushes of 50-plus yards in the past 10 seasons, three fewer than any other team in FBS. Johnson, meanwhile, has six runs of 50 or more yards. None of those runs, however, came against a top rush defense. Against the top two defenses Miami played last year -- Florida State and Notre Dame -- Johnson went for a long of 7 yards.
"It’s going to be a great challenge. They’re big, physical up front," Miami coach Al Golden said. "It’s a great defense. It’s a very talented defense, and they play a lot of guys. It’s a great challenge for our offense -- our offensive line, our tight ends, our fullback. But it’s a great opportunity."
Here is a look at the leading rushers for Miami and Florida since 2002:
2012 Duke Johnson
2011 Lamar Miller
2010 Damien Berry
2007-09 Graig Cooper
2006 Javarris James
2005 Tyrone Moss
2004 Frank Gore
2003 Jarrett Payton
2002 Willis McGahee
2012 Mike Gillislee
2011 Chris Rainey
2010 Jeff Demps
2007-09 Tim Tebow
2005-06 DeShawn Wynn
2004 Ciatrick Fason
2003 Ran Carthon
2002 Earnest Graham