Our position-by-position review of Florida's recruiting efforts in the class of 2014 splits out wide.
Florida wasn't looking for much from the Class of 2014 at wide receiver, not after the Gators' 2013 haul: Two potential No. 1 receivers in Ahmad Fulwood and Demarcus Robinson, who flashed — in games and practices, respectively — potential to be great, speedsters Alvin Bailey and Chris Thompson, and a physical specimen in Marqui Hawkins. They joined two sophomores who played significant snaps as freshmen, Latroy Pittman and Raphael Andrades, and provided depth behind a thin group of upperclassmen: Quinton Dunbar would likely be returning for what seemed like his 15th year, not his fifth, in 2014, and losing Solomon Patton and Andre Debose didn't seem like losing all that much.
As at running back, though, things changed — but they changed a little differently at wide receiver. Debose's torn ACL rolled him over onto Florida's 2014 roster; Patton's emergence and Trey Burton's development makes the departures of both players feel more significant; Robinson's multiple suspensions leaves his Florida career in danger of going up in smoke before it ever really begins, and Pittman's suspension put his career in jeopardy. An anemic passing game — less the wide receivers' fault than a symptom of poor quarterback and offensive line play — led to the firing of Brent Pease and hiring of Kurt Roper, which promises to bring the spread back to Gainesville.
And so Florida went from being able to be picky and take one or two top-tier pro-style wide receivers to needing more receivers who better fit Roper's system.
Wide receiver, like running back, was a position where only truly elite players could make a difference without significant help from the quarterback and offensive line in Pease's system, seemingly built to get production out of whatever players were available rather than tailor schemes to specific players. That seems likely to change under Roper, with better use of lateral space and distribution of the ball, but a great individual receiver is actually slightly less valuable in the spread, and depth that provides a breadth of options is probably the ideal.
Florida will always have skill players available — speed kills in the Sunshine State like nowhere else — and the state's 2014 crop of wide receivers was about average — or, in other words, one of the nation's best. Ermon Lane, Travis Rudolph, Artavis Scott, and Johnnie Dixon were four of the 247Sports Composite's top nine wide receivers, and among the 247Sports Composite's top 76 players. After that top four, and J.C. Jackson — who doubled as a wide receiver and cornerback in high school, and should be considered primarily a defensive back for Florida's purposes — there wasn't a ton of definite blue-chip talent in the state, but no state had more Composite four-stars at wide receiver than Florida's seven, if Jackson's included. (And this was in a year in which Louisiana was especially loaded, with the nation's top two receivers (Speedy Noil and Malachi Dupre) and four of the top 12.)
The talent that existed at wide receiver beyond the blue chips is significant — it always is in Florida — with 14 more receivers checking in among the Composite's top 100 players in Florida; the 21 wide receivers among Florida's top 100 players is far more than any other position group produced, with the state's 16 cornerbacks lagging well behind.
How Florida Fared
After swinging for the fences early, much like it did at running back, Florida ended up with a 2014 class at wide receiver that feels more like a hustle double than the home run it could've been.
Most fans remember that Florida's wide receiver crop was Lane and no one else for the longest time, but that neglects the Gators' June 2012 commitment from Ryeshene Bronson, who would eventually fall out of Florida's class (likely because of grade concerns) and ended up signing with USF. It was only after Bronson's decommitment that Lane pledged to the Gators, and remained as Florida's lone wideout commit until Ryan Sousa's flip to the Gators from Florida State in December.
In retrospect, Sousa's flip should probably have been seen both as insurance for Lane — who was wavering on his Florida commitment along with fellow South Florida blue-chipper Dalvin Cook — and as Florida's first reaction to losing him, as it finally would in early January.
With Lane fully out of the class, Florida trained its sights on Florida State commit C.J. Worton and Notre Dame commit Isaiah McKenzie as both of their recruitments blew up late in the process, and got both players on campus for official visits. Florida's preference between the two seems to have been Worton, whose tweet to FSU commit Rudolph was the only public hint of Florida pursuing anyone else at wideout in the six-week sprint to National Signing Day and likely cost Worton his scholarship offer, and the Gators got their man in Worton when he committed on Signing Day.
Both Sousa and Worton were referred to as "slot receivers" by Will Muschamp in his National Signing Day press conference, and that's definitely where they'll both start. Neither is particularly tall — Sousa is 5'11", Worton 6'1" — but both are quick and deceptively fast, and show good elusiveness in the open field.
Florida rarely operated with more than one slot (or "Z") receiver in 2013, with Patton and Burton most often serving in the role, but more four- and five-receiver sets under Roper could get multiple "slot" receivers on the field. And with no players on Florida's roster looking like slot receivers at the moment — Bailey is the closest thing, but he's more burner than technician, and Debose is that and then some — Sousa and Worton fit that role well.
I would be surprised if either Sousa or Worton is the player to get Florida's first 1,000-yard season from a wide receiver since Taylor Jacobs, but that's not what they committed to the Gators to do: Both could top out around 60 catches and 800 yards down the line without surprising me, though the hope early on will obviously only be that they produce catches and yards after catch in their targets.
Optimistically, Worton could be slightly better than Sousa because of his size, and both could be every-down nuisances in a spread passing game that uses slot receivers heavily; it's easy and lazy to make comparisons to slot players like Wes Welker and Michael Campanaro, but that's the archetype both Sousa and Worton fit for now, at least, and neither possesses game-changing athleticism on par with Percy Harvin or other elite slot receivers.
Pessimistically, Florida could reject its transfusion of spread concepts, and be left with two receivers who would be undersized when split outside, or one player could so definitively beat out the other that it would force the other to transfer.
I would lean more toward optimism than pessimism here; even if Florida is bad enough in 2014 to get the Gators' coaching staff fired, which I still find an unlikely prospect, the Gators are likely to stick with a spread, and Sousa and Worton are the kinds of smart, quick receivers that flourish in spread offenses.
Florida met its mostly minimal needs at wide receiver with Sousa and Worton, but neither player is the kind of talent that Lane was, and they will have to produce to make up for losing Lane in many fans' eyes.
However, both Sousa and Worton provide something Florida doesn't already have; Lane, on the other hand, is not that much different from Fulwood and Robinson, and could have ended up blocked at the position, despite being a great talent. Meeting needs rather than getting talent because it's there should probably be Florida's goal on offense until there aren't any more needs, only wants.