The Buffalo Bills have had quite the start to their 2016 campaign.
Head coach Rex Ryan claims the team “won” the offseason, but it doesn’t necessarily feel like they did, particularly when it pertains to the team’s backfield that boasted the top rushing attack in the NFL last season.
Starting with LeSean McCoy’s nightclub incident in Philadelphia and finishing with a four-game suspension of Karlos Williams and a pending DWI charge of rookie Jonathan Williams, things haven’t gone great for Buffalo’s running backs thus far.
Add in the fact that the Bills have reached out to veteran free agent Reggie Bush in the past week, and it’s clear to see that general manager Doug Whaley is slightly concerned when it comes to the depth behind McCoy, at least for the first quarter of the regular season.
The Bills brought back Boom Herron earlier this offseason after the former Ohio State tailback spent time on the team’s roster for a portion of 2015, and there’s been plenty of buzz surrounding fellow newcomer James Wilder Jr., who signed a reserve/future contract with Buffalo in January.
At 6’3” and 227 pounds, it would seem that Wilder Jr. would be a solid candidate to fill in for his former Florida State teammate during the first four games of the season.
With a similar build to Williams, it would also seem that Wilder Jr. could provide the thunder to McCoy’s lightning in the second-year running back’s absence.
However, in offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s offense, which involves a lot of pulling from its guards, running backs are required to make plenty of one-cut, decisive moves through the hole.
With that said, being able to run laterally behind a pulling guard before planting and quickly cutting up the field north to south in an instant is a major facet of Roman’s scheme.
So while Wilder Jr. may have the size Buffalo is looking for at the position, he may not be ideal for the offense as the former Cincinnati Bengal admitted in a recent interview on the John Murphy Show that making quick, one-cut moves was something in his repertoire that is still a work in progress.
Keeping that in mind, the team does have one back on its depth chart whose skill-set is seemingly tailor-made for Buffalo’s current offensive scheme.
That running back is fourth-year player Mike Gillislee.
Part Four of Building the Herd’s ‘Under the Radar’ series will take a look at why the former Florida Gator might just be the man for the job when it comes to backing up LeSean McCoy in the early stages of the 2016 regular season.
Mike Gillislee may not be the classic definition of an ‘Under the Radar’ player on the Buffalo Bills’ roster, but he’s seemingly been one so far this offseason.
Despite getting plenty of quality reps on the practice field throughout OTAs and mandatory minicamp, Gillislee hasn’t garnered as much attention from outsiders as some of the other backs on the roster.
He’s not big for the position, at least not by NFL standards. He’s not blazing fast (4.55 40-yard dash). And, he’s not really flashy.
But, the fourth-year running back is a near perfect fit for what Buffalo’s offense does schematically in the running game.
After sitting behind the likes of Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey during the first three years of his collegiate career, Gillislee got a chance to show what he could do on the field during his senior season in Gainesville.
Finally receiving a full workload, the former top-10 high school recruit exploded in 2012 with 244 carries for 1,152 yards and 10 touchdowns, as well as 16 receptions for 159 yards and one score.
Averaging 4.7 yards per carry that season and 5.3 YPC during his career as a Gator, Gillislee dominated his competition in the SEC in his senior year and proved he was just as capable as anyone else at the running back position.
Displaying an innate ability to flow with his offensive line before sticking his foot in the ground and setting up cutbacks, Gillislee’s play caught the attention of his collegiate head coach Will Muschamp after being more of an afterthought in his first three collegiate seasons.
Muschamp described what he liked about Gillislee’s play in an interview with the Associated Press in 2012.
“He’s just a one-cut guy,” Muschamp said in the interview. “He’s going to stick his foot in the ground, and he’s going to get north and south. … He hits a crease. He may not hit the big one every time, but in our league (SEC) it’s hard to hit the big ones.”
“You’re going to get run down. A 5-yard run is a great run, and that’s what sometimes younger players don’t understand.”
Although the DeLand, Florida, native failed to continue on with that successful running style during his first two seasons in the NFL after being drafted by the Miami Dolphins in the fifth round of the 2013 NFL Draft, Gillislee appeared to find a niche in Buffalo last season.
Amassing just 21 yards on six carries in two years with the Dolphins, the former Florida standout was signed and waived from the Arizona Cardinals’ practice squad early on in 2015 before eventually latching on with the Bills and being called up to the team’s 53-man roster in December.
From there, it seemed to click for the 5’11”, 219-pounder.
After tallying 41 yards on seven carries (5.9 YPC) in his first appearance with Buffalo in a Week 13 win against the Houston Texans, Gillislee managed to rack up touchdowns in three straight games as he rushed for 198 yards and three scores on just 16 carries (12.4 YPC) in Weeks 14, 15 and 16 before finishing with just 28 yards on 24 carries in a Week 17 win at home against the New York Jets.
While his performance in the season-finale left much to be desired, the former fifth-rounder’s performance in Week 13 through Week 16 was near record-breaking.
With a 10.4 YPC average in those four games, Gillislee could have been the first player in NFL history with at least 20 carries to finish a season with an average of more than 10 yards per carry had he continued that trend versus the Jets.
And yet, despite putting up those staggering numbers, Bills’ fans and national media members alike appear to have forgotten (at least somewhat) about Gillislee as training camp at St. John Fisher College quickly approaches.
LeSean McCoy and Karlos Williams are the “stars”, James Wilder Jr. is the feel-good story, Jonathan Williams is the shiny new toy, and Gillislee?
Well, when all is said and done, he just might wind up being the substance —the one who produces on the field.
Possessing solid awareness, balance and underrated speed, Gillislee has proven that he’s a fit in Greg Roman’s offense, particularly on power sweeps where his one-cut, turn up-the-field running style is an asset.
If he can continue on the trend that he was on toward the end of the 2015 season (aside from Week 17), then the former Miami fallout could be in line for plenty of carries behind LeSean McCoy to start the regular season.
McCoy will get a lot of rest in training camp to avoid any unnecessary wear and tear on the star tailback, so Gillislee will have his chance to prove in the preseason that he’s worth keeping on the roster ahead of players like Wilder Jr. and Boom Herron.
He’s had his fair share of ups and downs thus far in his short NFL career, but Gillislee has a big opportunity awaiting him when Buffalo begins training camp on July 30.
Opportunity is something that has always seemed to evade Gillislee in his playing career, so it will be interesting to see how he responds to this added workload.
If it’s anything like how he responded to increased carries at Florida, then Bills fans might just begin to forget about Karlos Williams while the troubled back sits at home during his recently imposed suspension.
Either way, Gillislee will be somebody fans need to keep an eye on this summer.
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