Once overlooked — literally — Freddie Swain is becoming a key weapon for Florida under Dan Mullen
When Freddie Swain called his shot, it was bold, to say the least.
To that point, the Florida receiver had just 30 career touches. In his first 2-plus years in Gainesville, 22 of those touches came as a receiver. The other 8 came as a returner (7 on punts, 1 on kickoff).
Still, when Colorado State went out for a punt during last Saturday’s game, Swain went over to Florida coach Dan Mullen and made him a promise.
“(Swain) was like, ‘Hey, I’m going to return one, don’t even bother calling an offensive play,’” Mullen said after Saturday’s game. “But it was the time before that, it wasn’t on (the touchdown). I was like, ‘Hey, let’s get the offensive series ready,’ and he was like, ‘Nah, I’m going to return this, so you don’t need to worry about that.’ And he did.”
Yeah, so technically, Swain didn’t call the right shot, but he did eventually dash his way to a 85-yard punt return touchdown by day’s end. And thanks to an 18-yard touchdown catch, he finished Saturday as the first Florida player since 1996 to return a punt for a touchdown and score a receiving touchdown in the same game.
A historic afternoon it was for Swain. A surprising afternoon, though? Not necessarily. Swain’s versatility just finally got a chance to flourish.
“Since we’ve been here, he’s really been a guy that’s tried to buy in to do what’s right, to do what we’ve asked of him within in the program,” Mullen said on the SEC Coaches Teleconference. “We had to play him at a lot of different positions, at the receiver position, be involved in special teams and he’s embraced all of it.”
Swain, for much of his career, has been buried on the depth chart, hurt, or just not used properly. Nobody will claim that the 6-0, 200-pound junior receiver is the most physically gifted. That’s perhaps why for most of his career, he has never been an obvious starter either as a receiver or on special teams.
“You have these tall, fast, freak athletes and then there’s Freddie. He’s not super tall, he’s not blazing fast, he’s strong, but he’s nothing to write home about. He’s just good in everything,” former Florida quarterback Luke Del Rio said. “You get a lot of these guys that look like Tarzan and play like Jane, and what is that gonna get you? That doesn’t score points … I just think it’s a mixture of things (with Swain).
“He’s not ‘sexy.’ He’s kinda dry. He’s from Ocala. He’s not from Miami or Atlanta or Texas. He’s from 45 minutes from campus. He’s got that country strength about him.”
Del Rio added that Swain has “one of the highest pain tolerances I’ve ever seen.” That’s not a bad thing to have for a slot receiver/punt returner in the SEC.
Even opposing coaches pick up on that watching film.
“I think Freddie has really good toughness. He’s an instinctive guy, has good hands, he’s a good route-runner, obviously he’s good with the ball in his hands,” Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt said. “He’s a savvy football player, and he plays really well in the slot. He’s just instinctive and he knows how to get open.”
There was a famous incident — or infamous if you ask Kentucky fans — when all Swain had to do to get open was simply line up as an outside receiver.
With 43 seconds left in the 2017 game at Kentucky, the Gators found themselves trailing 27-21 facing 3rd-and-1 from the Wildcats’ 5-yard line. Swain lined up inside the nearside hashmark as the lone receiver. Kentucky, however, only had 10 players on the field, none covering Swain.
Del Rio couldn’t see that over the Wildcats’ standing defenders at the line of scrimmage. What he did see was that Swain had turned his entire upper body to him and raised his arms with what Del Rio described as “a Mike Singletary look in his eyes.”
“I was like, ‘OK, I know that look. Throw me the ball now. They literally did not cover me,’” Del Rio said.
A quick throw off Del Rio’s back foot into the arms of Swain and the Gators had as easy of a game-winning touchdown as they could have asked for. Admittedly, though, Del Rio said he wouldn’t have trusted every Florida receiver who gave him the “they aren’t covering me” look. With Swain, the connection was different.
Both Del Rio and Swain spent that offseason rehabbing from labrum surgery together. It’s a 6-month recovery process, so they got to know each other well. Fittingly, the uncovered Kentucky touchdown was Swain’s first catch of 2017, which was Del Rio’s first game action of the season, as well.
That, however, was the last game that Del Rio and Swain could connect for a game-winning touchdown. Del Rio suffered a broken collar bone the following week, and it ultimately was the last game of his career.
Buried on the depth chart in an offense that struggled to move the ball, Swain had just 7 more catches on the season.
But he also got a chance to return a punt in each of Florida’s final 2 games of 2017. With slot receiver/return man Brandon Powell off to the NFL and a new coaching staff coming to town, that opened the door for Swain to finally get the opportunity to have a consistent role as a playmaker.
So far, so good.
Swain will likely not ever become a high-volume player. Del Rio said he could easily catch 40-55 passes for 600 yards, in addition to making a significant impact in the return game. It’s early, but Swain is second on the team with 105 receiving yards, and including his punt return score, he’s tied with Van Jefferson for the team lead in touchdowns (3).
“I could not be happier for him and the success he’s having,” Del Rio said. “I hope they continue to use him.”
All signs point to that being the case.
Mullen used Swain in the slot and on the outside. He was actually lined up in more of a slotback role on his 4-yard touchdown against Kentucky, while his 18-yard score against Colorado State came via a post route from the slot.
When asked if there were any plans to change his usage moving forward, the Florida coach gave an honest answer.
“I don’t know much more (we could do with him). We’ve used him all over the field,” Mullen said. “I don’t how much more it could evolve. He plays basically everywhere.”
Mullen certainly won’t shy away from Swain in the return game, either. He currently ranks second among Power 5 players in average punt return yards with 29.8. Ripping off the fourth-longest punt return in school history certainly helped that. It also helped Swain earn some more favor with his new coach.
Mullen and Del Rio both praised Swain’s reliability. He can be trusted to wear multiple hats, and to wear them well. Florida will continue to rely on Swain to make plays all over the field.
Whether he calls his shot or not.