FLORIDA FOOTBALL & RECRUITING COVERAGE
With spring practice canceled and on-campus activities limited over the summer, Florida Gators players have been forced to find alternative methods to prepare for the 2020 season. For some, that has meant crossing enemy lines and training with TopShelf Performance out of Atlanta, Georgia.
TopShelf primarily focuses on developing wide receivers, and Steph Brown is one of three coaches on staff. Brown played at Western Kentucky and currently coaches receivers at Westlake High School in Atlanta in addition to his role at TopShelf. He’s worked with a lot of the sport’s top wide receivers at the high school, college and NFL levels.
This past weekend Brown traveled to Gainesville to work with a handful of Florida players.
His connection to the UF program began when quarterback Emory Jones began throwing for TopShelf a few years ago. Jones spread the word about TopShelf to his skill position teammates. Tight ends Kyle Pitts and Kemore Gamble, wide receivers Justin Shorter, Rick Wells and Xzavier Henderson, running back Dameon Pierce, and Jones have all trained with Brown since the campus went on lockdown in March. UF 2021 quarterback commit Carlos Del Rio and wide receiver commit Daejon Reynolds, who are both from Georgia, have also entered TopShelf’s facilities in recent months.
Whereas some training organizations seem to put players through drills that improve their athleticism but have little to no applicability to games, every drill that players participate in at TopShelf translates to games in some way, Brown said.
“I will ask [the players] ‘What are the routes y’all need to seriously be working on?’” Brown said. “They’ll tell me the routes, and I’ll implement drills with their routes in it. My drills [are] conditioning as well. You’ll get multiple reps on your left and your right sides, so you can be working both sides with your plant foot and pumping your arms and using them to get in and out of the breaks on whatever route it is or whatever drill it is.”
Perhaps the player Brown has worked with the most this offseason is Pitts. Pitts visited the TopShelf facility a few times, and Brown traveled to Florida to work with him per Pitts’ request. Like everybody else who has seen Pitts play, Brown was blown away by his combination of size and speed, which will likely earn him All-American honors and a spot in the first round of the NFL Draft.
“He rarely drops the ball, he’s got a big catch-radius, solid hands, he moves really well for his size,” he said. “He’s a 6-6 guy, but he moves really well. He gets in and out of his breaks really well.
“He might be the most athletic [tight end I’ve trained], honestly, because you don’t really find guys that big that can move that well. I haven’t worked with a whole lot of tight ends, but, by far, he’s the most athletic and the most polished one.”
Despite Pitts’ breakout 2019 season, he’s remained dedicated to improvement, Brown said. They’ve worked on his footwork, conditioning, acceleration out of breaks, ability to read coverages and ability to catch the ball in traffic.
“You tell him something, he does it right there,” he said. “It’s easy to train a guy like that.”
While Pitts is one of the nation’s best tight ends, the Gators need a second tight end to emerge to help with blocking and keep defenses from putting extra defenders on Pitts. As a redshirt junior, Gamble should be one of the top contenders, although he failed to catch a pass last season. Brown said he’s lined Gamble up one-on-one against nickelbacks and safeties to help him improve his receiving skills. He also likes how Gamble runs despite weighing more than 240 pounds.
“You can tell he’s been watching his weight,” he said. “He moves really well. To be that big of a dude, he moves really well, probably more than a lot of people give him credit for. He understands the game really well. He’s a smart player.”
Shorter, if given a waiver to play by the NCAA, might be one of Florida’s most impactful newcomers. A 6-foot-4, 220-pound transfer from Penn State, Shorter was a five-star recruit who brings physicality and speed to the wide receiving corps. However, he reportedly struggled to stay in shape at Penn State, with coach James Franklin saying that he weighed nearly 250 pounds at one point. He appears to be in great shape this offseason, Brown said.
“He has great hips and explosiveness," said Brown of Shorter. "He gets out of breaks really well. He knows how to accelerate and decelerate in his routes, real good hands. I don’t think he wore gloves, [and] he was catching everything. He has great body control in his routes, too.”
While Wells has only three career receptions to his credit, some expect him to break out this season following the departure of four senior receivers from the 2019 squad. He’s worked out with Brown several times this offseason, and Brown has seen him make tremendous strides in their time together.
When Wells worked with Brown for the first time in the spring, he started running out of gas and faded toward the end of the workout, Brown said. When they got back together a few weeks ago, he was in much better shape and running better.
“He’s taking it more serious now,” Brown said. “I saw a different look in his eye this weekend. He had a better understanding of the type of stuff that [we] do, so he already has a good idea about the drills, but he looked really explosive.
“He understands football real well. He’s just got to tell his self in his mind he can apply it on the field. That means staying after practice to get some extra work. That means doing the extra of being a leader. ‘You’ve been here. You’re an older guy. Now it’s time for you to take that next step of being the guy.’”
Henderson trained with Brown on Sunday. Though he’s only a freshman, Henderson has an advanced knowledge of the game and is an explosive athlete, Brown said.
“Real soft hands, he attacks the ball,” he said. “He attacks the ball real well, gets in and out of his breaks really well. He doesn’t lose a lot of steps in his breaks.
“He’s going to be a real special player.”
While TopShelf primarily works with receivers, Brown has some experience training running backs, and he thinks Pierce was able to get some quality work in with him. He thinks Pierce has an extremely strong lower body, and he was impressed with how quickly he’s able to cut.
“When he cuts, it’s full speed,” he said. “You don’t see a lot of backs that make cuts. They try to be patient, patient and then they put their foot in the ground. He can go full speed.”
As for the guy throwing them the ball, Brown said Jones has steadily grown as a leader in the time he’s known him.
“The biggest thing I noticed with him, the players gel with him,” he said. “He and Kyle [Pitts] have a real good relationship on and off the field.”
During his time throwing for TopShelf, Jones has thrown to several household names, such as former Alabama receiver Calvin Ridley, former Georgia receiver Mecole Hardman and current Alabama freshman Javon Baker. Brown said throwing to a collection of stars like that has helped Jones understand when to take something off of his throws and how different types of receivers come out of routes.
While Jones probably won’t unseat Kyle Trask this season, Brown has high expectations for him whenever he gets on the field.
“If he handles his business and does what he’s supposed to do, he’ll come out on top in whatever he’s trying to accomplish,” he said.
While the Gators are scheduled to open training camp on Aug. 7, for a handful of players, the season began with workouts in Atlanta. That’s fitting, because if the Gators accomplish their goals, they’ll be hoisting an SEC Championship trophy in Atlanta in December.
STATE OF THE QUARTERBACKS