What was once expected to be one of the Florida Gators’ deepest positions in 2017 has turned out to be the very opposite.
At Tuesday’s practice, that lack of depth became very real. Only four wide receivers with receptions to their names have practiced this week. The others are either suspended or injured.
“It’s a lot of running, a lot of going on, a lot of people playing a lot of different spots,” wide receiver Josh Hammond said of this week’s practices. “Everybody’s pretty much got the gist of the offense and it’s moving pretty well so far. I think that’s the big thing, you know, just guys being in different spots and still being able to play with that same tempo. Being out there in a different spot, guys kind of get confused, but we haven’t really had a drop-off, so that’s good going in and I think guys will be ready.”
Not only does the lack of depth make practices tough, it’s been apparent in games.
The Gators have had to survive without the playmaking abilities of Antonio Callaway all season due to his suspension, so that is no longer an excuse five games in, but it is interesting to think how different things could be and how much he could open this offense up if he was available.
But this is reality, and it has been the reality for a while now.
The biggest loss last Saturday was the absence of Tyrie Cleveland after he suffered a high ankle sprain in the Vanderbilt game the week before. Through the first four games, he was by far Florida’s top receiver and essentially the only deep threat on the team.
Even after missing a game, he still leads all of the Florida’s receivers by more than 200 yards. Without Cleveland, there was no threat to take pressure off other receivers.
“It affected us because Tyrie is one of the faster receivers and he can definitely be a DB’s nightmare,” said wide receiver Freddie Swain. “It affected us a little bit but not too much. Like last week, he’s down and next man up. Somebody needs to step up.”
That’s the thing. “Next man up” isn’t the answer right now. No one stepped up on Saturday.
Why would it be any different this week?
The Gators only completed 10 passes for 108 yards against the Tigers and no receiver had more than 29 yards. That’s not all on the receivers. Some of it is on play calling (or lack of it) and not taking advantage of offensive weapons, and some of it is on having a young quarterback who is really struggling right now.
Then again, a lot of it is on receivers. While there were some plays receivers got open and Feleipe Franks just didn’t hit them, there were also a lot of plays where no receivers could get open. And that’s not just an LSU problem. That’s a problem the Gators have struggled with all season.
With Cleveland out, Hammond is all of a sudden Florida’s top receiver, and he is working to become a leader and make sure that issue and other continuous offensive problems improve this week.
“I’m gonna be on the receivers hard on just winning one-on-one battles whether we’re doing one-on-ones or on scout team or our actual defense,” Hammond said. “Just being on top, being up-tempo, getting the ball lined up fast. When we’re like that, our offense moves a lot better.”
Not only will the Gators likely be without Cleveland again this week, they may also be without quick-footed freshman Kadarius Toney. Toney has mainly been used in the wildcat this season, but he is still one of Florida’s top four receivers and arguably the most explosive athlete on the team.
If he indeed cannot go, Dre Massey will fill in duties in the wildcat. The Gators have been talking about the big things he can bring on offense for two years now, but he has still had limited opportunities this season. With so little depth, both he and freshman Daquon Green could see the field more.
“We’ll use Dre in a lot of different spots,” Hammond said. “Daquon has to come and play a little bit. You know, me, Freddie and BP [Brandon Powell], we’ve just to step up and be the leaders on our offense and be ready to play. That’s just what it boils down to and we’re going to be ready to play.”
The Gators have to move forward and play with the hand they were dealt this season and in recent weeks at wide receiver. It is a depleted position, and some of it is out of Florida’s control, but some of it is still in its control.
There needs to be better coaching and opportunities for the position. The talent is there, but has often looked underdeveloped. The Gators simply have to be better at wide receiver on game day for this offense to improve.