Florida managed only 2 explosive passing plays (15-yard gain or more) in their 35-14 season-opening win against Florida Atlantic on Sept. 4, a drastic shift for an offense that led America in passing offense and finished third in explosive passing plays in 2020.

Florida’s coaches were disappointed, too, and made getting vertical in the passing game a point of emphasis heading into Saturday’s game at South Florida.

“We made some big plays, but missed some, too,” Gators coach Dan Mullen told the media last week. “We need both our guys to be more efficient and to recognize the right reads, especially down the field.”

For the most part, Florida’s quarterbacks, whether starter Emory Jones or sensational backup Anthony Richardson, accomplished that task in Saturday’s 42-20 win over South Florida.

The Gators connected on 5 pass plays of 20 yards or more, including 3 long touchdown passes. A huge reason for the increased production? Breakout performances from former blue-chip recruits Jacob Copeland and Xzavier Henderson. The duo, who were both high 4-star, top=100 recruits who picked Florida over the likes of Alabama and Georgia, combined to catch 9 passes for 243 yards and 3 touchdowns. Copeland caught both his touchdowns from Jones, and Henderson was on the receiving end of this gorgeous toss from Jones.

The big-time performances from the redshirt junior and true sophomore came only a week removed from a game that saw Florida Atlantic limit the duo to 1 catch (by Copeland). Henderson’s performance had to be extremely encouraging after he was held without a catch on 2 targets with a drop in Week 1. Given the limited production of junior Justin Shorter to date (2 catches on only 5 targets this season), the Gators desperately need more from Henderson as they ready for their SEC schedule.

Make no mistake, though: It was Copeland’s performance the Gators needed most.

The crown jewel of Mullen’s transitional recruiting class, Copeland picked Florida over Alabama because he felt he’d play sooner at Florida. Little did he know that the Gators would send 7 receivers and tight ends to the NFL during his first 3 seasons on campus, forcing him to wait it out on a depth chart logjam behind current NFL starters like Van Jefferson and Freddie Swain.

Copeland was given the coveted and prestigious No. 1 jersey this offseason, a number reserved for playmakers whose work ethic embodies the “Gator Standard” and assuredly a sign that the staff knew his time was coming. After a frustrating Week 1, Copeland played by far the best game of his career, hauling in 5 catches for 175 yards and 2 touchdowns. On 2 of Copeland’s catches, including the touchdown reception below, he simply outran people.

On another big play, he used his physicality and athleticism to overwhelm good coverage and haul in an excellent pass by Richardson.

These are the tools every program in the country salivated about when Copeland was recruited, and they are finally paying dividends for the Gators on the field.

Florida faces long odds against Alabama on Saturday afternoon in The Swamp. For just the fourth time in the last 30 years, the Gators will be a double-digit home underdog.

If they want to have a chance to pull the big upset and win the game, they’ll have to be multiple.

It won’t be enough to dink and dunk and rely on the run game. The Gators will have to force Alabama’s terrific secondary to be honest and a step slow to help out against the run. It isn’t just about the semblance of balance, which Florida can get through screens and underneath crossing routes. It’s about being able to stretch the Tide down the field. The Gators did this in the SEC Championship Game and ran out of time late, falling by 6. They might not need 50-plus to win Saturday, but history instructs that you have to score and have an explosive component to your offense to beat Nick Saban’s Alabama.

Florida fans searching for signs of hope beyond the sterling play of Richardson need look no further than Copeland. The possibility that the junior has broken through the depth chart doldrums and is beginning to tap into his immense ceiling is just what the doctor ordered in Gainesville. Perhaps Saturday was just the beginning.