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Football: UF is running with confidence

Chauncey Bridges was always told he was too small to play running back.
Most colleges instead wanted him as a defensive back.
That wasn’t much to the liking of a then Farmington Hills (Michigan) senior listed at 175 pounds and either 5-foot-10 or 5-11, depending on which recruiting website you visited.
Yet Bridges has never cracked 5-9, his true height, entering his senior season at the University of Findlay.
“What I realized throughout my time playing football, it’s not about how big you are,” Bridges, now up to 189 pounds, said. “It’s about what you feel and how you feel that you can play.”
He’s let his play speak for his physique.
It spoke loudly last season.
Bridges saw a junior-year workload of 218 carries that surpassed the total of his first two seasons (208) as the understudy to Daiquone Ford — third on the UF all-time rushing list (3,420).
And the increased use hasn’t hurt his productivity.
Bridges grinded out 1,229 yards and eight touchdowns while bettering five yards per carry (5.4) for the third straight season.
“He’s much stronger than he was before but at the same time he’s a pretty slippery back,” UF coach Rob Keys said. “People don’t really get a lot of good shots on Chauncey.”
Bridges got his shot as a true freshman and surpassed the 100-yard mark in his second game.
He totaled 1,134 yards over the next two years but even as a freshman he felt he had to get bigger.
“That might not have been the best mindset from the simple fact that being a big bruiser back is not what I am and never has been,” Bridges said.
Once Ford graduated in 2014, Keys knew he had to keep the two-back system to be a successful football team.
Enter Daouda Sylla.
Keys called upon the blossoming defensive player and starting linebacker to make the switch.
Sylla just wrapped up a 57-tackle season as a sophomore, having already transferred over from being a defensive back.
“He’s a very physical kid; you can just see that,” Keys said of Sylla. “He loves contact. He’s a collision guy. Daouda was a tremendous running back out of high school. He fits all the parameters you’re looking for in a running back and the transition was easy.”
Sylla’s 5-9, 210-pound frame gave the Oilers a different dimension to pair with Bridges.
His first action didn’t go too well — 11 carries for 16 yards against Saginaw Valley State.
“I was a little rusty after not playing the position for two years,” Sylla said. “You definitely have to get a feel for it again. I had to learn the offensive scheme. I had to learn to read the linebackers, the defense and how the whole scheme worked and how to play my role in the scheme.”
He rebounded quickly and put together a solid year to the tune of 592 yards on 113 carries (5.2 ypc).
All year, he provided the consistent game, five times between 44-60 yards, with only one carry over 20 yards.
That was until his last game, which turned out to be his best.
Sylla scored four of his five touchdowns in the season finale against Michigan Tech and set a career-high with 169 yards on 22 carries without playing in the fourth quarter.
Bridges and Sylla each topped 100 yards in the first half, setting the tone for a 435-yard rushing day. Bridges finished with 160.
“I feel like I was more comfortable in the scheme and what was going on,” Sylla said. “The holes were huge. The offensive line was blocking their butts off.”
Sylla capped UF’s first drive with a 1-yard scoring plunge on fourth and goal. He carried for 19- and 28-yard gains on the next series that ended with a UF touchdown.
He’d score on a 49-yard rumble down the left sideline two drives later and found pay dirt twice more on runs of 4 and 29 yards in the third quarter on his third-to-last and last carries of the game.
“I’m hoping it’s a springboard for him,” Keys said. “I’m hoping it builds his confidence.
“We knew he could do it. Both of those guys can put together big days.”
The dominance was also an indication on just how well the offensive line had meshed.
The Oilers began the year with three starters who had never seen a collegiate snap before.
Second-yard starter and left guard Andrew Alten felt the turning point of the season was the Hillsdale game in Week 7.
The unit, coming of a stretch of just 118 total rushing yards in back-to-back losses, paved the way for Bridges to go for 193 (career-high) of the 236 yards the Oilers got on the ground.
“That’s when we were doing pretty much whatever we wanted to do,” Alten said. “We were running the ball, passing the ball, play action, the run-pass option.”
In the first six games of the season, UF averaged 149.1 yards on the ground (Bridges 76.6).
The Oilers closed the year at 238.8 ypg (Bridges 153.8) with a 4-1 mark.
Four starters along the offensive line are back for 2017 with the only departure in Jason Mulligan, a four-year starter at right guard.
“We were probably hitting on all cylinders and thats when we started running the ball best,” Alten said. “Hopefully, that can carry on over into this season.”