Why Florida fans should take this new approach to Kadarius Toney
I almost wrote it.
You know what I’m talking about. It’s the annual column about “why Kadarius Toney needs more touches” and how he’s poised to become a breakout star in the SEC.
I still remember being there at Camping World Stadium in Orlando and watching Toney turn a bubble screen into a Forrest Gump-like touchdown against Miami (FL). The shiftiness, the straight line speed, the upper body strength … it was all there.
Florida WR Kadarius Toney only had 10 receptions this past year, but forced 12 missed tackles👀pic.twitter.com/dwcmKDCSTh
— PFF College (@PFF_College) May 30, 2020
I’m convinced that 99% of college football players would’ve been limited to no more than 20 yards. Toney is in that 1%, much like Percy Harvin was a decade ago when he also wore No. 1 in blue and orange.
But as Florida fans are well aware of, that touchdown catch against Miami to kick off 2019 represented a different percentage — fifty. That jaw-dropping play accounted for 50% of Toney’s career receiving touchdowns in 27 games at Florida. Despite the various weekly “get Toney more touches” tweets from the Gator faithful, Harvin-like volume has been far more fantasy than reality during Toney’s 3 years in Gainesville.
In 2020, let’s change our tune with Toney and appreciate him for what he is — a low-volume, ace-in-the-whole weapon who can come out of the holster when we least expect it.
If he stays healthy, there are going to be a few moments in which Toney reminds us of his 1% status and it’s the difference in Florida winning a game. Shoot, he wasn’t healthy for the majority of last year and he still did that in the opener.
In a way, Toney’s shoulder injury opened the door for the “he just needs to stay on the field” takes about his volume/impact in 2020. Search his name on Twitter and you’ll see no shortage of those tweets. And look, I get it. His athleticism is intoxicating. For the last few years, we’ve been waiting to see what the converted quarterback can do once he puts it all together at receiver. That’s been an up-and-down journey. Switching positions usually is.
I’m not here to say that Toney isn’t going to improve as a route-runner. He probably will. Am I going to predict him to start running routes like Van Jefferson did? Absolutely not. Jefferson was an all-important chain-mover for the Gators. Even if Toney had 3 years of eligibility left instead of 1, I don’t think he’d ever become that.
But what he can provide for Florida is something that returning pass-catchers Trevon Grimes, Jacob Copeland and even Kyle Pitts cannot. Toney’s mere presence can provide what I’d call the “oh crap” moment (that’s the PG-13 version). You know what that is. It’s the 8 seconds pre-snap when the opposing defensive coordinator sees Toney lined up wide and starts jumping up and down with 15 simultaneous hand signals to get the attention of the frenzied middle linebacker who starts directing players like a traffic cop at a Times Square intersection.
That might be a slight exaggeration, but you get the picture.
Toney can still be a weapon without getting a ton of volume. He’s always going to attract attention because in the back of everyone’s mind is a play like what we saw against Miami. He turned nothing into 66 yards of jaw-dropping pay dirt. His value isn’t always going to show up in the box score, but it could be felt in more under-the-radar ways.
Maybe Dan Mullen wants to take advantage of a 1-on-1 matchup Pitts has on the outside, so he’s got Toney, Copeland and Grimes split out on the opposite side. Pre-snap, it looks like a possible bubble screen to Toney. But instead, it’s all schemed to get Pitts that look in single coverage. The play gains 12 yards on 3rd down and Florida keeps a drive alive. Boom. That’s not Toney’s volume, but it’s certainly his impact.
You know scheming looks for Toney has been on the top of Mullen’s mind since he took over in Gainesville (people forget that Toney had 3 touches on Florida’s first 9 plays from scrimmage in 2019). Toney’s 3.4 scrimmage touches per game during the Mullen era wasn’t necessarily from a lack of effort. Lord knows the Florida coach is asked about that subject constantly. Mullen actually said as recently as a couple weeks ago that he expects Toney to be a breakout player in 2020.
That’s exactly what Mullen should say. And whether Toney’s route-running improves or not, Mullen would prefer to have every defensive coordinator Florida faces worried about if and when he gets a look.
What’s easy to forget with Toney is the risk associated with his usage. In 2019, 55% of Toney’s scrimmage touches went for 3 yards or less. All of but 1 touch that went for more than 20 yards involved him getting the ball behind the line of scrimmage on plays like this:
Kadarius Toney hit all the buttons on this run 🕹 pic.twitter.com/ELLhx4SVT6
— ESPN College Football (@ESPNCFB) November 9, 2019
Why was that the typical Toney touch? As we know, speed doesn’t always equal separation. Toney isn’t DeSean Jackson. At least not yet.
On top of that, we’re talking about a quarterback who doesn’t have natural, pass-catching hands. Running an 8-yard dig and making a catch on the sidelines isn’t as easy as it looks. That limits the route tree.
And as we saw last year, it’s not like Toney is 220 pounds. There’s injury risk with someone who clocks in south of 200 pounds, and missing him for 2 months takes away Mullen’s ace-in-the-hole.
Consider that my way of saying it’s not worth pounding the table demanding that Toney’s volume spikes in 2020. In all likelihood, it won’t. It’s hard to envision a world in which he averages 10 touches per game, and that’s still going to frustrate plenty of Florida fans who know how dangerous Toney is in space AND how good Mullen is at scheming.
In the meantime, it makes more sense to shift expectations for 2020. Treat Toney like a long holiday weekend. They aren’t the norm, and they aren’t the norm for a reason. Not every day is a holiday, and not every play can be a home run. But they’re always worth getting excited about whenever they come around, and they always leave us wanting more.
Toney is that 1%, and if Mullen has it his way, he’ll be the difference in Florida reaching new heights in 2020.