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Previewing Florida's positions: Gators' wide receivers, tight ends brimming with potential

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Florida should have a host of options in its passing game.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

We're previewing the 2016 Florida Gators roster on a position-by-position basis for the next two weeks. Today, Eric takes a look at wide receiver and tight end, where exciting youth movements are afoot.

Last fall, Rotoworld's Josh Norris opened a discussion of the passing offenses of Jim McElwain and Jimbo Fisher with a telling subheader:

You Have The Right To Get Open

What does that mean, translated to the football field? That McElwain's offense (and Fisher's) are structured partially around the idea that, on every play, every receiver should have the opportunity to be open. His offense is schematically designed to allow this to happen: It features many "option" routes which allow the receiver to read the leveraging defender and make a decision to break a number of ways. These routes are also available to running backs when they are the checkdown option, giving them free range to choose to sit in the A, B, or C gap.

McElwain's passing offense has a number of goals in mind. As with any offense, though, the main goal is to get guys open. Option routes make that easier, and so does spacing. Appropriate spacing can make or break an entire play design. We see a reoccurring theme in the offense that features a four verticals look, something that McElwain uses to create spacing.

If you have all of your receivers take their men vertical it allows an underneath crossing route to not only be open, but create extra space for yards after the catch. Another way spacing can benefit a play is through receivers running routes that cross the face of the quarterback. Instead of him being forced to read the entire field, he only has to focus on a select area where receivers are breaking off their routes.

This brings us to Florida's current master of both those cross-field routes and verticality. Antonio Callaway has been suspended from the team since January due to a violation of the student conduct code. On Monday, McElwain confirmed that Callaway (and Treon Harris) are enrolled in classes and using Florida's facilities once again, another incremental step back toward the field. At this point, it seems like a forgone conclusion that Callaway will eventually be back with the football team; at minimum, it seems like the likeliest outcome. And if that happens, it's good news for Callaway, both the student-athlete and the human being trying to create a future for himself.

It's important not to lose sight that young men's lives are being affected by bad decisions and bad situations they put themselves in. For Callaway, going through this should not be just about getting back on the field, but getting better as a person each day. I genuinely hope Callaway learns from this and is able to finish his career at UF on the right side of the road.

But, frankly, I am also be really excited about seeing him back on the football field. He's Florida's most electric receiver since Percy Harvin, but he's been successful for many different reasons.

Instincts, vision, balance, and versatility are attributes often associated with running backs, yet Callaway, a former high school running back, has all of those traits in spades. They make him mesmerizing to watch. I watch him, and say to myself "This guy isn't a burner, he isn't big in stature, and he's not a freak athlete: How is he doing this?" Callaway, put simply, seems to have an innate "feel" for the game of football. He has a knack for finding the soft spot in zone coverage, and always seems to know where he is on the field at all times.

His 66-yard touchdown catch against Georgia was one of the most incredible plays I've seen a receiver make, and is great evidence of Callaway's "feel."

He judged the ball in the air as an underthrow, then slowed down while shielding the defender leaving no room for a play on the ball. A small percentage of receivers could make that play — and a large percentage of even those excellent receivers let their momentum carry them out of bounds from that juncture. Somehow, though, Callaway planted his foot and adjusted his body to stay in without really breaking stride, leading to a touchdown.

He has it all, and Mac realized that as soon as he stepped on campus. Coaches develop favorites, just like we do, and I can't help but notice that Mac and Callaway's relationship is a special one.

As a freshman, though, defenses weren't game planning around Callaway, with Demarcus Robinson still more or less Florida's No. 1 receiver. As long as he does actually return to the field, as a sophomore, Callaway won't be sneaking up on anybody.

It's a good thing he should have help.

Someone who can help take the pressure off of Callaway is incoming freshman Tyrie Cleveland. Easily Florida's biggest get of the 2016 recruiting class and arguably the most explosive receiver coming out of high school, Cleveland has every physical tool one could want in a wideout, save maybe for truly exceptional height. If he can follow Callaway's footsteps and come in ready to work when fall camp begins, he's probably going to be too good not to see the field immediately.

That's true for more than just Cleveland, too. While Florida's wide receiver group is really green, its depth of talent makes me more comfortable about the position than I have been since 2009.

It's possible that the Gators will start exclusively underclassmen, with the exception of junior Dre Massey — a newcomer to the program — or junior (somehow!) Brandon Powell. The veterans of the group have, for the most part, had their opportunities to contribute, but only a few of them seem poised to do so going forward, and that writing on the wall is probably part of the reasoning behind the transfers of Ryan Sousa and Alvin Bailey.

As for the remaining upperclassmen, Powell should contribute in some way, and you can make a case that C.J Worton should be in the mix for a starting spot, but Worton has to prove to the coaching staff he's all in first, as consistency has been absent from his game to date. Chris Thompson's speed is mentioned often in discussing Florida's wideouts, but he's only been able to leverage it on special teams to date. Ahmad Fulwood is still Ahmad Fulwood, maddening as that is.

Regardless, I'm all for playing the five most talented guys regardless of their experience. Freddie Swain and Josh Hammond participating early in the spring gave them a jump on the rest of the group, and the ceiling for both of them is very high. Massey looks poised to steal the slot position spot from Brandon Powell. He looks like a suped-up version of Powell. Those three could really do damage this season with all the attention on Callaway and Cleveland, but that might be true of any supplementary receivers beyond Callaway and Cleveland, who might both command special coverages at times.

And — oh, yeah — Florida has two potentially devastating athletes at tight end.

No linebacker in the country should be able to match up with DeAndre Goolsby or C'yontai Lewis, both of whom are surprisingly quick off the line and in space. Can you say wheel routes for days? Mac has always used his tight ends well no matter where he was coaching. He likes sneaking them out into space where they can get the ball and create from there, and both Goolsby and Lewis both excelled in limited action in 2015.

I am a little worried that we don't have a natural blocking tight end on the roster, sure, and it's premature to consider either Camrin Knight or Moral Stephens a contributor. But even without blocking, tight ends can be very useful, because two more big-body receivers in rotation puts added stress on a defense. Jake McGee was functionally a fourth wide receiver last season, and finished second on the team in catches and tied for first in receiving touchdowns.

Schematically, Florida now has enough firepower to be versatile. Though Callaway is clearly your featured receiver, I don't think he'll be lined up as the X receiver often; I believe Cleveland will fill that role, because of his size and athleticism. Callaway's versatility allows you to move him inside or out, I expect Florida to take advantage of that and keep the defense on its heels. I think his role will be similar to Rashad Higgins at Colorado State.

Worton may also be in the mix as an X, while Swain and Hammond can be used at Z or slot. Massey impressed in spring, especially considering he hasn't been used as a traditional wide receiver much in his college career. I think he can be a weapon in the slot but I expect Powell to still get his touches — he's a hard worker, and does everything the coaches ask of him.

As I mentioned in the quarterback and running back writeups, I think Mac is finally getting around to shaping the roster to his liking. But no position is closer to a finished product of the McElwain regime than wide receiver, and Kerry Dixon has done a tremendous job since he arrived in Gainesville, both in improving the wide outs and recruiting new ones.

I expect Florida's offense to be close to wide open this fall, as long as the offensive line continues to grow and quarterback play returns to at least an acceptable baseline, and I think the armament of wide receivers the Gators can bring to bear is rife with players who will have both the right to get open and the skills to do so.