Return of Billy Gonzales, new talent has Gators receiving corps shining this spring
GAINESVILLE — Some programs have made “Wait until next year” a rite of passage, a rallying cry that must be learned before one can truly be admitted to the fan base.
Sometimes, “Wait until next year” refers to the program, a promise that the wait for greatness is finally over.
Fans might say: “Wait until next year!” We’ll win our first SEC Championship since 1998!”
Or: “Wait until next year! They won’t be able to say our last national title was in 1980 anymore.”
At other places, “Wait until next year” can be smaller.
It could be something simple, like: “Wait until next year. We’ll finally live up to the hype and win the SEC West.”
Or: “Wait until next year. We can’t lose to Bama forever.”
At Florida, “Wait until next year” has its own identity, almost always relating to the return of the long-dormant Gators offense, lost in the wilderness since the departure of Tim Tebow.
The wide receivers, in particular, merit a great deal of attention.
A highly-touted unit in preseason magazines, the Gators lost preseason All-American Antonio Callaway to felony credit card theft charges before the season began and never completely recovered.
Sure, there was the “Heave to Cleve.” But even Tyrie Cleveland struggled, a victim of poor quarterback play and a recurring ankle injury that limited his effectiveness. He finished the season with only two touchdowns (the “Heave to Cleve” and a TD against Kentucky where the Wildcats literally forgot to cover him) and a paltry 22 receptions.
The other wide receivers on Florida’s roster — each highly-touted in their own right — also struggled mightily. Senior Brandon Powell — a holdover of the Will Muschamp era — was the only Florida wide receiver other than Cleveland to score more than one touchdown. Only oft-injured freshman Kadarius Toney (15) Joshua Hammond (18) and Dre Massey (11) finished with more than 10 receptions, and of the three, only Massey scored a touchdown. Collectively, Florida finished the season with a total of 10 receiving touchdowns, and with Powell departed, only four WR touchdowns return in 2018.
Normally, the return of that type of “production” wouldn’t suggest a turnaround was imminent.
But enter Dan Mullen and his longtime wide receivers coach Billy Gonzales, and with them, a sense of genuine optimism.
Florida’s returning wide receivers have dazzled this spring, with former 4-star blue chip Freddie Swain among those looking looking like a new football player heading into his junior season. Swain’s only touchdown last season came, like one of Cleveland’s, on a bizarre play where Kentucky refused to cover him. But he has impressed the coaches with his commitment in the weight room and film study, and the work has paid off in terms of his route-running and ability to get separation in press coverages, which was a huge problem early in Swain’s career.
“He’s a different guy than we’ve seen on film, and that’s a credit to his work ethic. He gets after it and he’s been ready to work,” Gonzales said this week.
Gonzales, who rejoined Mullen at Mississippi State after spells at Illinois and LSU, has a proven track record developing wide receivers in the SEC that includes five incredibly productive seasons at Florida working with Mullen and Urban Meyer, from 2005-2009. In that span, Gonzales served as primary recruiter for two-time All American and future NFL Rookie of the Year Percy Harvin, and helped develop Andre Caldwell, Riley Cooper and Louis Murphy into All-SEC wide receivers and draft picks. From 2007-2009, Gonzales’ Florida wide receivers (excluding tight ends) accounted for 63 receiving touchdowns. Florida receivers caught only 25 in three years under Jim McElwain, the second lowest tally in the SEC (Vanderbilt) in the same period.
He continued his good work at LSU and Mississippi State, where he was instrumental in the early development of All-Pro Odell Beckham and All-SEC receiver Rueben Randle. Reunited with Mullen at Miss State, Gonzales helped Fred Ross become the first Bulldog receiver to earn All-SEC honors this century and coached at least eight receivers who caught five touchdown passes or more in a season (Florida has had only two receivers do that in the post-Tebow era!).
Florida’s receivers haven’t been good in nine years, which — not coincidentally — is when Gonzales left Gainesville.
Gonzales is pushing the players, challenging them that other SEC receivers are competing, getting better. He’ll ask them, Do you want to?
The current crop of Gators receivers has been bolstered this spring by the additions of two highly-coveted transfers in Van Jefferson from Ole Miss and Trevon Grimes from Ohio State.
Grimes, a high 4-star recruit out of St. Thomas Aquinas in Fort Lauderdale, transferred home from Ohio State to be closer to his ailing mother. With prototypical NFL size and speed, Grimes (6-4, 202) has the potential to give Florida something it has lacked of late — a vertical and fade route weapon who can battle and win 50-50 balls. He’s also familiar with Mullen’s schemes, coming from Meyer’s Ohio State spread, which retains many of the Florida spread tendencies. Florida has sought a hardship waiver to allow Grimes to play immediately.
Jefferson also transferred under less than ideal circumstances, leaving Oxford in the aftermath of NCAA sanctions coming down hard on Ole Miss for a laundry list of NCAA violations under former head coach Hugh Freeze. Jefferson caught 87 passes for the Rebels over the past two years and has looked like the most fluid route-runner and surest-handed receiver throughout the spring. The Gators have not yet sought an exemption from the NCAA to allow Jefferson to play immediately, but are expected to do so over the summer.
If one or both of Jefferson and Grimes becomes eligible, Florida could add even more talent to a receiving core that includes highly-regarded prospects like Cleveland, Swain and Kadarius Toney, who is working hard to learn the “Percy Harvin” role in the Florida offense this spring. Couple that group with the arrival of coveted wide receiver Jacob Copeland this summer, and Florida’s wide receivers may finally make a breakthrough.
There’s at least reason to say the following.
“Wait until next year, Gators fans. Florida’s receivers are going to be fantastic.”