The Florida Gators offense sputtered to an all too familiar halt during the final eight games of the 2015 season.
“I know that based on last year they didn’t have to redo any light bulbs on the scoreboard,” head coach Jim McElwain joked during SEC Media Days.
McElwain’s folkish humor hides a deep disappointment. He’s has been called a “quarterback whisperer” and offensive genius. He’s an offensive minded coach, wildly competitive and would be the first person to tell you that his offense was embarrassing over the final two months of the season. The Gators averaged 246 passing yards during the first six weeks of the season, a total that would have ranked them a respectable fifth in the SEC. Over the last eight weeks that number dropped to 177.9 yards per game, which would have ranked 11th in the conference. Combined, Florida’s passing offense was ranked eighth in the league (207.1 yards per game).
A change at quarterback is the first place to look. Florida’s offense was much more efficient with Will Grier than it was with Treon Harris. Neither passer is on the roster now, but McElwain is confident with his quarterbacks.
“I love our quarterback room,” McElwain said on the Paul Finebaum show last week. “Our quarterback room is something that people don’t think about, but the individual position rooms, sometimes, and how they can affect everybody in the organization. Obviously the greatest effect you can have is in that quarterback room.”
Luke Del Rio is the frontrunner to win the starting quarterback job, but Florida’s passing game doesn’t fall solely on the quarterback’s shoulders. Florida has had just one player (Demarcus Robinson, 2014) rank in the top sixteen in the SEC in receiving over the last six years. Antonio Callaway had a stellar freshman campaign, but was ranked 18th in terms of receiving (48.4 yards per game) in the SEC last year. Callaway, who has been cleared to return to the team following a school suspension, can’t do it on his own at receiver either.
“Obviously, we’re breaking in some new guys at some new positions,” McElwain said at SEC Media Days. “Literally a whole new receiver corps. Obviously, got a couple of returners there, but some guys that are going to have to take some valuable snaps.”
Florida inked five new receivers in the last recruiting cycle. Rick Wells, Tyrie Cleveland, Freddie Swain, Josh Hammond and junior college transfer Dre Massey. Wells and Cleveland were arrested last week with the case still pending. McElwain has said that both will have consequences for their actions, but neither are expected to miss extended playing time.
This leads to the question, how effective can a freshman receiver be in a McElwain offense. Antonio Callaway, a relative unknown to most Gator fans before he signed with Florida on National Signing Day, led Florida with four touchdowns and 678 receiving yards in 2015. McElwain was also the offensive coordinator at Alabama in 2008. That year a highly touted freshman named Julio Jones stepped foot onto campus in Tuscaloosa. Jones hauled in 58 passes for 924 yards (15.93 per catch) and four touchdowns. At Colorado State Rashard Higgins hauled in 68 passes for 837 yards (12.31 per catch) and six touchdowns as a freshman. Callaway had far fewer receptions than the other two, but averaged more yards per catch (19.37) and had as many touchdowns as Jones did in his freshman season. Higgins was a Biletnikoff Trophy finalist in 2014, McElwain’s final year at Colorado State. The history shows that, given the right type of talent, Mac has confidence in young receivers.
Callaway should improve on that output in 2016, but who will join him?
Tyrie Cleveland should be able to fill that role almost immediately. A Jacksonville native, who played high school football in Houston, Cleveland was an Under Armour All-American last year. He hauled in 46 passes for 982 yards and 14 touchdowns during his senior season at Westfield High School. As a junior he caught 53 passes for 1,109 yards and 13 touchdowns.
“Cleveland is what you want in a receiver,” All-American cornerback Jalen Tabor said on a conference call. “[He’s] a prototypical receiver 6-2, can go get the ball, run routes.”
If Cleveland can get right off the field in order to get on the field, he and Callaway could give McElwain and the Florida Gators a one-two punch at receiver that they haven’t had in years.