I firmly believe Antonio Callaway is going to be one of the NFL’s best rookie receivers — and maybe one of its best rookies — next year.
The former Florida Gators standout had an outstanding NFL Scouting Combine over the weekend in Indianapolis, blazing a 4.41-second 40-yard dash and getting listed as a winner among the wide receivers participating in the event despite that speed being his primary calling card, physically. Callaway also addressed the “mistake” that led to his suspension and took partial responsibility for Jim McElwain’s firing — a noble, if misguided and unnecessary, move.
#Gators WR Antonio Callaway on the unfortunate end to his college career: “I was immature. I made a mistake that cost me my season. I’ve moved past it and grew from it.”— Trevor Sikkema (@TampaBayTre) March 2, 2018
#Gators WR Antonio Callaway says he takes it personal that coach Jim McElwain lost his job. Said if he would have been out there he thinks his coach would still be there.— Trevor Sikkema (@TampaBayTre) March 2, 2018
And, for some in the NFL, that was probably enough to start considering Callaway solely on his merits as a player again.
Those merits are, of course, substantial.
Callaway averaged a staggering 18.3 yards per offensive touch as a freshman, and then had another 12.8 yards per offensive touch as a sophomore. (For perspective, Percy Harvin averaged 11.9 yards per offensive touch in 2008, albeit over nearly twice as many plays.) He did that despite being the focal point of passing attacks that were led by Will Grier, Treon Harris, Luke Del Rio, and Austin Appleby. (Percy’s QB was some guy who prays a lot.)
He also recorded punt and kick return touchdowns — the former during an up-and-down stint as a dynamic returner, the latter on a heads-up play as part of Florida’s hands team — and passing and rushing touchdowns during two short years on the field in Gainesville. For an offense starved for playmakers for much of his career, Callaway made a lot of big plays — and for a team that often couldn’t get the ball to Callaway on offense, he was still a crucial playmaker, often seeming to be Florida’s only threat to get the ball into foes’ territory on returns.
And he knew it, too. One of my strongest memories of Callaway’s time in orange and blue is his reaction to failing to haul in what would have been a very difficult touchdown pass against LSU in 2015.
What Callaway did to even have a shot to catch the ball was phenomenal: In double coverage, he had his head turned by the end of his route to know the Harris throw was to a spot that LSU’s defenders were going to overrun, and got a clean jump to high-point the ball. That Callaway didn’t manage to haul it in has far more to do with a defender getting a perfect mid-air punch-out on the ball than anything he did.
And yet: There was Callaway, head in hands, in the end zone, and Callaway, head shaking as he headed back to the sideline. He took that drop — again, not really his fault — hard.
He took Florida losing to Alabama in the SEC Championship hard, too: There’s a picture, one no longer in our photo tool, of Callaway giving a thousand-yard stare in a locker room after one of those losses. No matter what, I can’t believe for a second that Callaway didn’t care about winning football games he was playing in, or care deeply about being a Gator — and that he doesn’t, to this day, take pride in being able to Gator Chomp.
And that’s part of what makes what Callaway did off the field so vexing, even now.
Callaway spent the 2016 offseason suspended during a university investigation into an alleged sexual assault that culminated in a controversial student conduct code hearing that found him not responsible. And after losing that full offseason to suspension, Callaway still got cited for marijuana possession — while riding in a car with a person with an extensive rap sheet — in early 2017, and then participated in the credit card fraud that cost a slew of Gators their entire 2017 seasons later that summer.
Callaway was a player who clearly worked hard to play football well, both for himself and his teammates, at Florida. Callaway was also a person who could not effectively avoid trouble, both of the admitted and alleged varieties, and hurt himself and his teammates by finding that trouble.
And his pattern of mistakes — three big ones, including two after a close shave that most hoped would help scare him straight — makes him a risk for any NFL team. Callaway can say every right thing about his Florida career, and about the things he did that ended it prematurely, but the NFL team that drafts him — and one will, to be certain — will be accepting that he has made mistakes, plural, after what should have been points of inflection in his life.
It’s possible, too, for fans to be rooting for Callaway with more than a little skepticism. He’s a prodigious talent, and a fun player to watch; he’s also a player who has mislaid our faith, and that of his coaches and teammates, before. There will be fans who revel in Callaway’s successes, should they come, and then tut-tut about his failures, should they come, because that’s how twisted fans’ priorities can be.
I don’t think I’ll be like that. I want Callaway to succeed because he’s a Gator, and I want all Gators to go into the world and do good things. I want him to realize the dreams his talent has allowed him to have.
But I don’t know that I’ll be in the majority in that regard.
What do you think? How will you follow Callaway’s NFL career?