Florida football: With big shoes to fill, Gators' wide receiver room in good hands
One of the biggest questions facing Florida in 2020 was always going to be how the Gators would replace one of the most accomplished groups of wide receivers in program history.
The dynamic senior class of Van Jefferson, Tyrie Cleveland, Joshua Hammond and Freddie Swain helped Florida to a top 20 finish in passing offense and a top 15 finish in S&P+ offensive efficiency for the first time since 2009, despite a ground game that lingered around 100th nationally for the bulk of the 2019 season thanks to a young, leaky offensive line. Collectively, the quartet accounted for 139 receptions, 1,871 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2019. All four went to the NFL, with Swain, Cleveland and Jefferson drafted and Hammond quickly gobbled up as an undrafted free agent. Complicating matters, Florida also loses backfield security blanket Lamical Perine, who ranked 3rd on the team with receptions (40) a season ago.
Replacing the bulk of your production at wide receiver can really limit the ceiling for an offense, as we saw a season ago at Georgia. The Bulldogs were forced to replace 6 of their top 7 players in terms of passing production, and the passing game often appeared mired in the mud, especially when transfer Lawrence Cager, who very much earned All-SEC selection, missed time with injury. Yes, the Dawgs had immense talent at the receiver position waiting in the wings. But in the SEC, pass-catching production is a grown man’s game, with upperclassmen accounting for more than 70% of the league’s passing offense production since 2017, per our research.
While a significant challenge, Florida’s situation isn’t as dire as Georgia’s was in 2019.
The Gators do lose 5 of their top 7 passing targets, but they return 3 of their top 7 players in terms of receiving yards, compared to Georgia’s 1 in each category a season ago. And while Florida fans undoubtedly received a scare when top returning wide receivers Trevon Grimes (5th in receptions, 4th in yards in 2019) and Jacob Copeland (7th in receptions, 7th in yards in 2019) contemplated opting out of the 2020 season, the highly-recruited duo is in camp and practicing now.
Florida also has the immense luxury of returning the nation’s best tight end in Kyle Pitts, who led the team with 57 receptions a season ago. Pitts gives the Gators a matchup nightmare — simply too big and physical for opposing corners and safeties and too fast for opposing linebackers.
As such, Florida has excellent pieces in place to replicate the production created by their splendid senior quartet (and Perine) in 2019. But the loss of that leadership and on-field experience still points to the possibility of some growing pains, and it’s why getting the receiving corps on track has been a focal point early in fall camp.
Early returns are encouraging.
Freddie Swain was one of the SEC’s best players out of the slot position in 2019, and the Gators have been encouraged by what they’ve seen thus far in that area in camp. The arrival of Jacob Copeland and senior playmaker Kadarius Toney, who averaged a first down per touch in 2019, in camp was expected to solve the slot riddle. But Dan Mullen pointed out that several players are repping at the spot last week and Rick Wells, a redshirt junior who understands the offense, has stood out as another option and played well in camp, per multiple sources.
Tyrie Cleveland was the guy who defenses had to account for vertically, the player who could occupy a free safety and keep the middle of the field more open for the intermediate and seam routes Kyle Trask and Kyle Pitts thrived on in 2019.
The Gators have been pleased with their options to stretch the field. Grimes is a great leaper with elite speed whom Florida expects to showcase more in the vertical passing game in 2020.
In Florida’s first scrimmage last week, however, Grimes sat out, allowing the staff to evaluate other players. The result? Other vertical options are emerging, with true freshman Xzavier Henderson looking the part of the classic kid from Miami who is ready to play immediately. Jaquavion Fraziars, another freshman, also had an excellent scrimmage, and the staff likes his versatility and ahead of his years route-running ability.
As for “X factor” guys, Toney continues to be an enigma. Yes, the senior is the first Gator since Percy Harvin to average over a first down per touch in consecutive seasons (minimum 20 touches). But Toney has drawn criticism for his high-risk decision-making with the football and he has long struggled with route running, limiting his versatility in the offense. He was quiet in the first scrimmage last week, but that’s nothing new. Toney will sometimes disappear and then make a play that makes you remember why he’s so electrifying. Consistency may never be his thing.
One player who has been consistent in camp is Ja’Markis Weston, a 3-star from South Florida who redshirted a season ago. Weston continues to be a guy Mullen raves about — a kid who might be ideal for the slot given his quickness and ability to stop and accelerate quickly. He was also very versatile in high school and could give Florida a guy they can deploy in a variety of ways to stress defenses. Plus, at 6-3 and 185 pounds entering camp, Weston has a physicality Toney lacks.
Regardless of position, none of the options above are as proven as Swain or Hammond or Cleveland, of course. And there’s no certified bell-cow like Jefferson, the flawless route runner who led the team in receiving yards a season ago. But Florida has recruited well at the wide receiver position and the cupboard is far from empty.
Mullen has also preached — with receipts — his ability to scheme and find ways to get his best players the football.
“One of the things we do a lot with our offense, and we are working on with this group, is our ability to move guys around schematically and create matchups,” Mullen told the media last week. “We have the ability to do that with this team as well.”
Certainly, Florida will have its fair share of challenges in replacing that senior class. Anyone who underestimates how difficult that will be from both a leadership and productivity standpoint does so out of naivety and at their own risk. But this group, while younger, has as much if not more high-end talent. It’s just a matter of growing up.