"I know that Andre is disappointed," Gators coach Will Muschamp said Wednesday. "He had been doing very well in camp and we were more than pleased with his effort and attitude. Andre was hurt in a non-contact situation. He just planted his foot and there was a tear.
"He will have surgery after the swelling goes down. It is unfortunate and you feel bad anytime that someone is injured, and the coaching staff and our team will be very supportive in assisting Andre during his recovery."
And now begins the work of figuring out what Florida does without Debose. (Pardon my lateness here: I'm moving out of my old apartment and into my new one over the next few days, and got a text about Debose's injury while in my new, currently powerless and A/C-free digs.) That requires preamble, though, because this is Andre Debose, and his star-crossed Florida career has been anything but simple.
First of all, it's fair to acknowledge that the bit about Muschamp and his coaches being "more than pleased with his effort and attitude" is very much a tacit admission that Debose had given coaches reason to be less than pleased with his effort and attitude in the past. That Debose was a tease, and no one likes a tease.
He came to Florida in 2009 as an explosive playmaker who many expected to slot into Percy Harvin's role as a receiver and runner, but got hurt and missed the entire 2009 season; as a redshirt freshman, he struggled to get on the field on offense, but made enough plays as a kick returner, including returning kicks against LSU and South Carolina for touchdowns, for that potential to continue simmering.
In 2011, he made good on the potential as the go-to deep threat in Charlie Weis' bomb-or-bust offense, and caught long touchdown passes against both Alabama and LSU in lopsided losses. Debose led Florida in receiving yards and yards per catch in 2011, but had just 18 catches for 432 yards, as injuries to John Brantley and spotty play by freshmen Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel left a passing attack in disarray. And teams largely minimized the damage Debose did on special teams, kicking away from him and yielding fewer big returns; even though he returned a kick for a touchdown against Ohio State in the 2012 Gator Bowl, Debose had gone from a potential all-time returner to an all-potential returner.
But whispers about Debose's inability to run effective patterns beyond the go routes he was so dangerous on and a lack of focus in practice lingered, and Debose lingered on the sidelines while Florida was on offense for much of 2012, with Brent Pease -- who drew a line in the sand for Debose in preseason comments about not wanting "Terrell Owens types" who created more headaches for their own coaches than defensive coordinators -- favoring other receives and a run-heavy offense, and the departure of Aubrey Hill before the season leaving Debose unmoored without a coach he trusted.
Hill and Debose being simpatico and Hill's coaching and Debose's effort both being questioned probably have a lot to do with each other, and, in retrospect, it's unfortunate that Debose, who desperately needed more technique and drive, got Hill and a graduate assistant, Bush Hamdan, as his receivers coaches in what should have been his prime years. But Debose lagged where others (arguably, others with less talent) didn't, as Quinton Dunbar and Frankie Hammond became reliable targets in 2012 and Latroy Pittman and Raphael Andrades each earned playing time with hard work and a willingness to do the things like blocking and running decoy routes that Pease needed receivers to do.
Reports around the time of the Sugar Bowl had Debose figuring it out, and applying himself in practice; it is perhaps possible that Florida rewarded him with a target on the first play of the contest. The same old Debose repaid that faith with a poor route that left him in a bad position to catch a Driskel throw, and it bounced off of him and into a Louisville defender's arms for a pick-six that started a nightmare in New Orleans. Debose tied a Florida record by blazing his fourth career kick return touchdown in the second half, but that mishap on the first play of the game was what lingered for fans.
And now, it's what threatens to be the lasting memory of Debose, who was on the incline again heading into his redshirt senior season, and had the feel, at long last, of a player who wanted to work to be great, and understood the gravity of his potential last shot. I've long found Debose to be an alternately breathtaking and maddening player, and I was excited to see his final year as a Gator. Now, I'm worried that I already have.
Florida will survive without Debose, because it largely survived without Debose in 2012, and because its offense has much more depth than the 2012 Gators could boast. Dunbar, Trey Burton, Pittman, and Andrades are still near the top of the depth chart at receiver, which isn't ideal, but Florida won't have to play walk-on Michael McNeely, as it occasionally did in 2012, unless McNeely is truly better than the excellent freshman class of receivers that is led by Demarcus Robinson.
Robinson, the only early enrollee in a quintet that also includes Alvin Bailey, Ahmad Fulwood, Marqui Hawkins, and Chris Thompson, is probably best-suited among those freshmen to step in for Debose because of his extra spring of work. But Bailey is the sort of shifty, speedy player who could approximate Debose as a returner, and Florida could throw it up to Robinson and Fulwood on the long balls that it might have sent Debose's way, as both players are tall leapers who could high-point balls that Debose would've been able to run under. Florida may be slightly less productive without Debose, but it can insert players who have some of his skills in the roles he was going to play. (An unorthodox way to do that? With Loucheiz Purifoy, who could ably fill in for Debose as both a go-route specialist and a kick returner.)
Here's a thing I really, truly believe, though: Andre Debose was still the most talented receiver Florida had entering 2013, and, if he was finally committed to grinding through the practices that add skill to talent, he was going to have a big year. Now we'll have to wait until 2014 to see if Debose can get back on the incline after another major injury ... or we'll never see it, at least not while Debose is a Gator.