Florida’s losses on the perimeter entering the 2021 season were well documented.

Gone were the core of the wide receiver and tight ends group that helped Florida lead the nation in passing offense and finish 2nd in passing success rate in 2020. Two of those players, tight end Kyle Pitts and Kadarius Toney, were selected in the first round of the NFL Draft, with Pitts becoming the highest-selected — and highest-paid — rookie tight end in NFL history. Senior Trevon Grimes also bolted for the NFL. Those three players accounted for over 60% of Florida’s pass game production in 2020, and their losses were piled on top of the loss of 4 seniors in 2019, 2 of whom quickly became NFL starters (Freddie Swain, Van Jefferson). Given the attrition, it was reasonable to ask who would step up as the “go-to guy” on the perimeter in 2021.

Florida’s question marks at receiver seemed a legitimate concern in their opener against Florida Atlantic. The tight end room failed to catch a pass (they were rarely targeted) and the wide receivers caught only 1 pass over 18 yards (a long Anthony Richardson ball to Ja’Markis Weston with the game no longer in doubt). All told, Florida’s receivers caught 14 passes on 25 targets for 124 yards, averaging a ghastly 4.9 yards per target.

That will need to improve, regardless of who ends up playing quarterback.

Still, there is talent at the position — and reason for optimism.

For one, Florida has recruited well at receiver and tight end. The roster features plenty of blue-chip talent, from Jacob Copeland, the crown jewel of Mullen’s transitional recruiting class, to speedy Xzavier Henderson at wide receiver and the likes of Keon Zipperer and Kemore Gamble at tight end.

Copeland, in his fourth year on campus, was especially well-regarded during “talking season,” a common pick by many, including this writer, to break out in his redshirt junior season. Copeland was given the honor of wearing No. 1 at Florida this year, a number reserved by the coaching staff for a player who embodies playmaking ability and leadership.

The choice wasn’t a coincidence. It’s the one that Florida wide receiver coach Billy Gonzales made last year for Kadarius Toney, who entered his senior year with 50 career receptions and less than 1,000 total yards of offense and finished his final campaign by eclipsing his career marks and accumulating over 1,200 yards and scoring 12 touchdowns as a senior.

Toney credits Gonzales’ tough love for his 2020 turnaround and expects big things out of Copeland in 2021.

“(Coach Gonzales) is going to push you and he pushed me, but he also lets you know he believes in you and your talents,” Toney told SDS. “He’s a great coach, the kind of guy who wants you to work but who has plenty of players he’s coached where he can show you that the hard work will pay off. We always talk about next man up and (Copeland) is next man up. He’s got all the talent in the world and (coach Gonzales) has him believing he won’t get outworked.”

Copeland isn’t the only potential breakout story. Both of Florida’s upperclassmen tight ends, Zipperer and Gamble, are NFL-type talents, with Zipperer’s speed and route-running and Gamble’s terrific hands and physicality. Justin Shorter, a 5-star transfer from Penn State, showed flashes in 2020 and is a terrific route runner and leaper. And Trent Whittemore might be the best hands guy on the roster and is a freakish athlete who could develop into a reliable red-zone target.

Then there’s 6th-year senior Rick Wells. The former Jacksonville Raines star was slated for big things when he signed with Florida, but like plenty of 18-year old kids, ran into some growing pains and maturity issues off the field that slowed his development on it.

He persevered, grew up, and appears to have become a favorite of Emory Jones, catching a team-high 5 passes for 36 yards and a touchdown in Saturday night’s opener.

“Rick just shows perseverance,” Mullen said after the win. “He’s a guy that’s worked his tail off. He bought all into the program, and I saw a change in him. Even when he got stuck behind some guys, it never deterred him. He just kept working. Now he’s reaping the reward of that hard work.”

Wells is reaping the rewards of hard work on and off the field. Last spring he earned his degree from UF, a top-10 public university nationally, and began graduate school this autumn. He’s a “model teammate,” according to Gonzales, his position coach, and the locker room was thrilled for him to score a touchdown in the opener Saturday night.

While smaller-minded folks like Florida AP writer Mark Long have immaturely criticized how long Wells’ journey took, the truth of the matter is that in a sport that features 18-23-year-old kids, college football has always been about a good coming of age story. None of us was perfect at 18 or 19, and the best of us are works in progress for much, much longer. Wells’ story, which could have involved the transfer portal, the failure to finish school at an elite university, or the lack of any production on the field — will end with a potentially special season on it and a graduate degree off it.

That’s special — and is only one of several potentially meaningful stories at the receiver and tight end position that should have better Saturdays ahead.