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Gerhart looks to fill role as Jaguars’ go-to runner

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — It has not been the NFL career that Jacksonville Jaguars running back Toby Gerhart had imagined.

The runner-up for the 2009 Heisman Trophy had envisioned that the success he enjoyed at Stanford would translate to the professional level.

The Minnesota Vikings held the same line of thinking when they traded up with the Houston Texans to draft Gerhart in the second round (51st overall) in 2010.

Granted, they had one of the league’s premier backs in Adrian Peterson, who had rushed for 1,300 yards in each of his first three seasons with the Vikings. But Gerhart’s size (6 feet, 231 pounds), speed and durability were too tempting for the Vikings to pass over, and they grabbed him after making the deal with the Texans.

While the thinking was Gerhart could spell Peterson with little noticeable difference, it didn’t work out that way. Gerhart’s best year with the Vikings was in 2011, when he rushed for 531 yards. When he became a free agent after the 2013 season, Gerhart was ready for a new look.

When it appeared that the Jaguars weren’t going to bring back Maurice Jones-Drew, Gerhart jumped at the chance to be the featured running back in Jacksonville. He signed a three-year deal worth $10.5 million.

But the 2014 season didn’t pan out for Gerhart, either. He had the starting role in hand, but he suffered a sprained ankle in the opener against the Philadelphia Eagles, and the injury nagged him for the next nine or 10 weeks.

In the Jaguars’ 14th game, against the Baltimore Ravens, he rushed for 54 yards on 13 carries. The next week, against the Tennessee Titans, he ran 12 times for 53 yards. He finished with just 326 yards and a career-low 3.2 yards per carry.

In five seasons, he has 1,631 yards. Gerhart may have envisioned that total for one season.

But that’s in the past, he says. He’s as optimistic heading into the 2015 season as he has been in any of the previous five NFL seasons. And the Jaguars have given him added reason for a fresh approach with the news that they have changed the concept of the running game, one that Gerhart totally endorses. The Jaguars will go more with an inside zone scheme that encourages more running between the tackles.

“I’m much more comfortable running the inside zone, the gap scheme, and occasionally stretching to the outside zone,” Gerhart said. “Last year the emphasis was the outside zone: Initially take the corner until you can’t. I was a little surprised and it was a little different than what I anticipated coming into last year.

“But I’m excited about this year’s running game, which has a lot more downhill, inside-zone type of stuff which I feel I can excel at. There are a lot of similarities to what we ran at Minnesota for four years.”

Not only is the concept to Gerhart’s style and liking, but he’s totally recovered from the nagging ankle injury. Granted, it’s still spring, but Gerhart has been running with power and a flare that he hasn’t shown since his collegiate days.

“I had tried to play through the ankle injury from that first game, but it wasn’t until Week 9 or 10 that I felt better,” Gerhart said. “I just didn’t have that burst or that strength or that endurance that you worked all offseason for. I just didn’t feel I could do everything I normally could. Now with this offseason, I got stronger, got healthier, got back in shape, so I’m excited see where this goes.”

That’s not to say Gerhart has a clear, uncontested path to retain his starting role. When he was limited with the ankle injury, Denard Robinson made the most of his opportunity with two 100-yard rushing games. He finished as the team’s leading rusher with 582 yards.

To add more competition to the position, the Jaguars drafted Alabama running back T.J. Yeldon with the 37th overall pick. Yeldon rushed for more than 1,100 yards in his first two seasons before finishing with 979 his final year.

“We don’t know how it’s going to play out,” Gerhart said. “We’re all competing right now, trying to be the best we can be, and how the chips fall once we get going, we’ll see. We all kind of have a little bit different styles.”

Gerhart’s dedication to work hard in the offseason and to accept the 2014 running attack that didn’t particularly suit his game has not gone unnoticed. He’s earned the admiration of coach Gus Bradley.

“Toby is the ultimate team player. I think I’ve learned to appreciate him even more,” Bradley said. “Last year we did more of an outside zone scheme running game, and he’s more of a downhill type runner. He didn’t blink. He learned the outside zone schemes and did a good job with it. But I don’t think it was completely in his wheelhouse. Now, we’re doing more inside zone scheme, and I think he’s saying, ‘This is more what I do.'”

The pieces are in place for Gerhart to finally fulfill his dream of being one of the league’s top rushers. First, however, he must prove he’s one of Jacksonville’s top rushers and earn the right to once again call the starting position his.


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