Return to Form: Florida features best receiving corps in a decade

Jun 5, 2019 | 0 comments

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If the results of a front page poll conducted by Inside the Gators is any indication, the Florida faithful are expecting big things from the Gators’ wide receivers in the coming season.

According to the poll, 68-percent of the respondents believe that the wide receivers are the position group that they feel best about at the conclusion of spring football.

The Gator Nation may just be on to something with this unit bolstering the most talent and depth it’s seen in years.

The receivers at Florida – once a position of strength for record-setting offenses – were mostly a non-factor, if not an SEC laughing stock, for most of the past decade. 

Lacking creative play calling, steady quarterback play, a revolving door at receivers’ coach and a general lack of game-changing talent, the unit had faded into irrelevance.

That is no longer the case.

Fueled by transfers Van Jefferson and Trevon Grimes and the emergence of veterans, including Josh Hammond and Freddie Swain, under Billy Gonzales tutelage, in Dan Mullen’s scheme, the Gators’ receivers saw vast improvement in just one season.

As a result quarterback Feleipe Franks’ numbers skyrocketed in 2018, showing a 15 touchdown, 1,019 passing yards improvement from his rocky 2017 season.

The turnaround took root on the practice field, where the competition among the Gators’ receiving corps is as fierce as any position.

"I think it keeps guys on their toes,” Jefferson said. “You never know, that guy can come in and take that spot. Just have that thought in the back of your head that somebody can catch up to you – that's why you gotta keep grinding.”

The success of the team’s secondary and claim to the title of DBU – Defensive Backs University – has been the talk of the team for years now. Now the group is facing some real competition, while helping Florida’s receivers make strides of their own.

Jefferson’s crisp and effortless route-running, sure hands and burst off the line solidified his position as the No. 1 option in the passing game. The Ole Miss transfer led the 2018 Gators with 35 receptions for 503 yards and six scores.

This past spring, Grimes blurred the gap between him and Jefferson.

Grimes, an Ohio State transfer, has the skill set to be the unit’s most explosive player and premier deep threat. The 6-foot-5, 210-pound junior possesses spectacular speed, leaping ability and body control for a player his size, to go with the mentality of a game-changing player.

Franks’ ability to toss the long ball and Grimes’ physical gifts benefit the offense tremendously. 

Senior Tyrie Cleveland also returns as a deep threat on the outside after leading the Gators in receiving in 2017.

In the slot, human joystick Kadarius Toney can change the game in the blink of an eye due to his electrifying open-field moves, which allows him to maneuver east and west while leaving defenders grasping at air.

The former high school quarterback continues to polish his craft as a receiver, but good things usually happen when the ball is in his hands – place fans hope to see the football more this season.

“One of the things he’s really worked on is getting better as a wide receiver, where he can catch the ball and make plays a lot more within the normal scheme of our offense, more than designed get-it-to plays to him at quarterback or handing it to him,” Mullen explained in November. “One of those deals. I think that would be great getting him the ball more within just the basic framework of our offense.”

While less flashy than Grimes and Toney, Hammond and Swain are rock-solid seniors who found their calling during Year 1 under Mullen.

The duo combined for 42 catches for 634 yards (15.1 average) and nine scores out of the slot, offering Franks reliable targets, especially when the Gators need a first down.

Having one or two playmakers usually is enough to create havoc for a defensive coordinator, but Florida’s multitude of options could pose a preparation nightmare for opponents.

“I think there’s talent and there’s depth, which is important. Because if you have one or two talented guys, you’re either spending all your time trying to move them around to make sure they’re the only ones who touch the ball,” Mullen said. “And then people are scheming against those specific players. Where, if you have some depth on the board – which I’d rather have – you can take what the defense gives you.”

“It allows the quarterback to take advantage of the defense and take what they give you.”

Mullen also will look to force the action by creating mismatches on the perimeter.

At 6-foot-6, 245 pounds, sophomore Kyle Pitts fits that job description to a ‘T.’ Recruited as a tight end, Pitts transitioned to the outside during spring practices, showcasing wide receiver speed and tight end size to create separation and win the football in the air.

Pitts remains a work in progress on the perimeter, especially as a route-runner. But tight end Dante Lang said Pitts’ versatility is special.

“He’s amazing. He’s able to go play out wide and still come in and put his hand in the dirt and still give you work at the same time. He’s basically a freak of nature.”

Add it all together and the ceiling is sky high for the Gators’ receivers.

“There really is no limit for us,” Grimes said.

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