Previously in Positional Previews: Quarterback and running back. Today, we look at wide receiver, and the rising youth movement there, and Florida's depth at tight end.
"Spit 'em, polish, look how they shine
Glitter, glisten, gloss, floss
I catch a beat runnin' like Randy Moss"
Florida almost couldn't pass in 2012. And so it barely tried: Florida's 288 pass attempts were its fewest since 1989, and thus the fewest of my lifetime. Florida hadn't thrown fewer than 329 passes in any season since Steve Spurrier's arrival when Will Muschamp became head coach in 2011, and now has two straight seasons under that mark, with the Gators attempting just 320 passes in 2011 before dipping under three bills last year.
That's got a lot to do with having a coltish quarterback whose legs bettered his arms for much of the year, and a workhorse running back capable of shouldering the load. (Florida's 146.3 passing yards per game in 2012 was by far the worst passing performance of the Spurrier-to-present era, but its offense actually produced more yards per game than the 2011 edition.) And it's got something to do with an offensive line that road-graded but passed on blocking rushers. But even when that line gave Jeff Driskel time, who was he supposed to find for big gains?
It was Jordan Reed for much of 2012, and the junior tight end caught 45 passes for 559 yards, leading Florida in both categories. He left for the NFL, and Frankie Hammond (22 catches, 295 yards, three TDs) and Omarius Hines (23 catches, 242 yards) finished their eligibility; Mike Gillislee had 16 catches for 159 yards, and he, too, is gone.
Among returners, Quinton Dunbar's four touchdown catches led the team, but the sophomore never had more than five catches in a game and just once topped 40 yards, though that performance did come as one of the few bright spots in the Sugar Bowl. Returning Florida players had just 647 receiving yards last year, and Andre Debose's injury means only that a whopping 15 of those yards aren't technically returning.
There is paltry, and then there was Florida's production from its passing game in 2012. So the onus is on a new crop of wide receivers, a quintet of talented freshmen, to step up and provide additional production, and on Dunbar and Trey Burton, the lone reliable targets returning, to develop. To that end, Florida brought in Joker Phillips, well-respected as a wide receivers coach before he became an offensive coordinator and head coach at Kentucky, replacing the oft-maligned Aubrey Hill and the little-mentioned Bush Hamdan. And early returns have suggested that Phillips is working well with both returners and newcomers like Demarcus Robinson: Routes are sharper, and receivers better-schooled in the Brent Pease offense.
But we Florida fans know what we want to see out of wide receivers, and have been spoiled by 20 years of good to great ones. And so we'll believe that this group can catch on when it does.
Also, Florida has several tight ends, none of whom are Jordan Reed, and they deserve just about this sentence's worth of preview at this point.
The Projected 2013 Depth Chart
|Quinton Dunbar||Redshirt Junior||6'1", 195 pounds||36 catches, 386 yards, four TDs|
|Demarcus Robinson||Freshman||6'2", 201 pounds||HS: 696 yards, 19.69 YPC; one fully insane recruitment|
|Trey Burton||Senior||6'2", 225 pounds||18 catches, 172 yards, one TD|
|Solomon Patton||Senior||5'9", 171 pounds||One catch, 17 yards|
|Ahmad Fulwood||Freshman||6'5", 191 pounds||HS: 709 yards, 12 TDs; injury led to missing much of season|
|Chris Thompson||Freshman||6'0", 167 pounds||HS: Two-way player led Gainesville High to FHSAA final|
|Mike McNeely||Redshirt Junior||5'8", 177 pounds||The guy Pease used to motivate Andre Debose|
|Raphael Andrades||Sophomore||6'0", 190 pounds||Two catches, five yards|
|Latroy Pittman||Sophomore||6'0", 208 pounds||Two catches, six yards|
|Marqui Hawkins||Freshman||6'1", 207 pounds||HS: Played in run-heavy offense|
|Alvin Bailey||Freshman||5'11", 182 pounds||HS: Played WR/QB for Armwood; had great hair|
|Clay Burton||Junior||6'4", 256 pounds||Two catches, 12 yards|
|Tevin Westbrook||Junior||6'5", 262 pounds||Blocked a lot, basically|
|Colin Thompson||Redshirt freshman||6'3", 252 pounds||Redshirted after injury|
|Kent Taylor||Freshman||6'5", 224 pounds||Two catches, five yards, one TD|
The Depth Chart Overview
If the somewhat snarky comments in those charts above weren't a clue, there's a lot more potential than production at wide receiver and tight end on Florida's roster.
I like and trust Dunbar, Robinson, and Burton for different reasons. Dunbar is the best blend of polish and talent at Florida right now, and showed that he can be slippery throughout 2012, especially on this touchdown catch against South Carolina. (On which Xavier Nixon stones Jadeveon Clowney, mind you.) Robinson has the highest ceiling of any Florida receiver, save maybe the taller Fulwood, and has demonstrated an incredible knack for making catches in practice already. Burton is Florida's smartest route-runner, and has gotten faster and stronger throughout his career, though it will still always be shocking to see him burn people in the open field.
(You can see more of Burton's route-running in this video, in which he teaches an awkward, stiff Patric Young how to run routes effectively and gives the sort of coaching that is really valuable stuff when handed down from an older player to a younger one. It's no secret that I've been skeptical of Burton as a playmaker throughout his career, but he's grown into a huge asset for and credit to Florida.)
Beyond those three, things get murkier. Patton is both quick and fast, but was rarely used as a receiver in 2012, with the bulk of his action coming on very effective sweeps and reverses; Fulwood is still new to the collegiate level, as is every freshman listed below him, none of whom reaped the benefits of enrolling early Robinson did, but he's big and savvy enough to make the field as a red-zone target, if nothing else; both Andrades and Pittman played well as unsung blockers in 2012, but were rarely targeted, and have not been mentioned often this fall. If I had to guess right now, better than 80 percent of Florida's catches by wideouts will be made by Dunbar, Robinson, and Burton, and at least two of the freshman receivers will redshirt.
At tight end, Clay Burton is the player who best balances blocking ability and pass-catching skills — a frightening thought, given that the converted defensive end caught two passes in 2012 and had at least as many drops. Westbrook is another converted defensive end, and has the bulk to be a sixth blocker, but his hands are likely just as ill-suited to being an integral part of Florida's offense. Thompson is better at run-blocking than route-running; Taylor runs like a deer but stands like one, too, and lacks the bulk necessary to be anything other than a pass-catcher at the moment.
That looks like three blocking tight ends and three pass-catching tight ends, sure, but only the three blocking tight ends made Florida's first depth chart, which should tell you plenty.
Note: Andre Debose (injury) and Trevon Young (likely redshirt) are not listed in these depth charts because duh. Loucheiz Purifoy is not listed because we have no idea what role he's actually going to play on offense.
The Far Future
Robinson is the future, and it would be very surprising if he is not a 1,000-yard receiver at some point in his Florida career. But he's not the only part of the future, not nearly.
Dunbar is unlikely to go pro after 2013 unless he has a currently unfathomable monster season, so he and Robinson will likely head up the depth chart in 2014. They should be joined by Fulwood and Ermon Lane, one of the top three receivers in the 2014 recruiting class, to form a quartet of tall, long-striding receivers who can go get the ball. That foursome would have more talent on its own than any Florida top four since 2008, when future NFL players Percy Harvin, Louis Murphy, Riley Cooper, and David Nelson were Tim Tebow's targets.
And it's going to get better after that, if Florida can hold on to commit Da'Vante Phillips, one of the top five wideouts in the 2015 class, stay on mega-talent George Campbell, a Michigan commit, and keep 2016 hyper-athlete Tyler Byrd, likely a wide receiver or corner at the next level. Getting depth and elite talents in the 2013 class allows Florida to do more cherry-picking in the next few classes: Taking Lane alone wouldn't be a disaster in 2014, because there are other options for development on campus, and hauling in Travis Rudolph or someone like him would be a bonus.
If Florida's wide receiver situation was dire in recent years, it's got the potential to be dazzling before long.
While Trevon Young might be too much of a project to ever be a go-to player, the Gators have at least two more years each of Thompson and Taylor at tight end, and really like the fluidity of 2014 commit C'yontai Lewis. It's unclear whether Florida will get another 2014 tight end, but look for 2015 to be a year when the Gators could take two.
The 2013 Outlook
I wrote this in the running back preview, and it's still true:
Florida won't be as reliant on its running game as it was in 2013, when the Gators ran the ball 539 times compared to just 288 pass attempts, producing a 65-35 run-pass balance that allowed teams to stack the box and attempt to stop Gillislee while daring Jeff Driskel to beat them.
Since then, though, Matt Jones has fallen ill, and thrown the running back pecking order into chaos, and Robinson has shown that Florida's likely to have three reliable receivers. That's not going to instill Spurrier-era confidence in fans that the Gators will be back to hanging half a hundred by bombing away shortly, but it should be the foundation for a more balanced attack that relieves the running game from run-run-pass sequences and converts some of those third down passes. Dunbar is the best bet to be the go-to chain-mover, I think, because of his quickness and cuts, and if he turns into a version of Jabar Gaffney, that would be great. Burton's best-case scenario is being a sort of jumbo-sized Wes Welker, a nightmare slot matchup for undersized nickel backs who can also be motioned into the backfield for options and sweeps.
But it's Robinson who holds the key to this passing offense being more than just average.
The more extravagant expectations for Robinson — that he'll be Randy Moss, or Julio Jones, or Sammy Watkins, or Stefon Diggs, or Amari Cooper — misunderstand or disregard how good the situations for those players and some of their ilk were. Moss was a celestial talent playing I-AA teams; Jones was a freak, and the first one Nick Saban's Alabama passing game ever had; Watkins plays for an endlessly inventive offensive coordinator who has no governor; Diggs was the only guy Maryland had, and ACC defenses are not exactly sturdy; injuries opened the door for Cooper to star, and he had one of the nation's best quarterbacks doing the pitch part of pitch and catch. Moss himself couldn't come to Florida as a true freshman wideout and match his first year at Marshall.
Robinson could, however, be more valuable to this Florida team than those other new stars were to theirs, because he's the player who strikes new fear into a defense, and prevents Matt Jones from seeing eight in the box. He's what a healthy Andre Debose could have been, and a better example of what a 2013 Jabar Gaffney could be: A matchup that opponents have to respect with a top corner and then some.
Florida hasn't had one of those at wideout in a minute. Should Robinson hit the ground running this Saturday, the return to effective, even dangerous pass offense could be swift.
Meanwhile, the tight ends will block a lot.