In my time of following the Gators it was Ricky Nattiel, Ray McDonald, Stacey Simmons, Ernie Mills, Willie Jackson, and Jack Jackson. It was Chris Doering and the quartet of Ike Hilliard, Reidel Anthony, and Jacquez Green, and Travis McGriff. It was Travis Taylor and Darrel Jackson. All of these were big time players making big time plays for the University of Florida over the last 20 years.
I know I have missed some, but you get the point. Wide Receivers Coach Billy Gonzales wants more like that.
What many don’t realize is that in his stable of wide receivers, six of them are former US Army All-Americans. Half of them were on the 2005 edition of the Gator football team and didn’t live up to expectations. The past is something that Gonzales is going to use to shape the future.
“I don’t think it was a group of receivers that was feared,” Gonzales started about last year’s receiving unit. “I think that is something in the past that they had here. We want it to get back to the point when Florida receivers go onto the football field they are going to be a group of guys that are feared.”
Such a candid words from a wide receivers coach at the University of Florida conjures up glorious visions of the past where the Gator receivers used to be so feared and so dominating as a unit that they virtually single handedly won games with their fleet wings on the field.
In order for this group to be feared like receivers of the past they are going to have to improve in two major areas. It really is as simple as that according to Gonzales.
“The first thing is blocking,” he said of the older guys that are the main contributors. “They know the system and understand it now so they better be the best blocking receivers in the country. Two, I also want big plays and productivity. Ultimately we want to score touchdowns and make people miss. I don’t think we were very productive from that standpoint last year. We were very average. They will be able to block and do something with the ball in their hands.”
The 2005 season was marred with injuries that side-lined or hampered those receivers they were counting on. Through it all, there was one guy that continued to progress, even through an injury of his own. In the middle of the season Dallas Baker (6-3, 206. Sr.) was hit in the back and had his ribs broken. He fought through it to play well the rest of the year.
“I think Dallas improved immensely throughout the season last year,” Gonzales said. “He was the Outback Bowl MVP and carried that over to the spring. The thing I am looking forward to is his continual growth. He has a lot of talent he still has not tapped into. The thing he has done is become a leader and I am excited about that also.”
A fellow senior, Jemalle Cornelius (5-11, 185, Sr.), has been around the block a few times with Baker. Cornelius always ranks as one of the fastest players on the team and Gator fans have seen a tantalizing glimpse of his ability on the field at times. Gonzales is looking for more of that from Cornelius.
“Jemalle Cornelius is a guy that has been consistent as a leader all the way around and he needs to continue that,” he said. “He made big plays in the Kentucky game, but we have to get him to do that more consistently. He will do anything we ask and run through a brick wall if we ask him to. He is the elite of the elite in our weightlifting program. We just need to make sure we get the ball in his hand, because he is a great athlete as well.”
Then there’s Kenneth Tookes (6-2, 206, Sr.). Tookes isn’t going to wow anyone with his moves on the field. He has pretty good speed and is a great blocker. He was called several times last year for holding that were clearly not holding penalties. He hasn’t played much, but Tookes has maintained a great attitude through it all and Gonzales sees him as a solid contributor this season.
“Kenneth Tookes is a guy that came into my office last year and said all he wanted to do is play,” Gonzales said. “I expect my seniors to lead by example and he has changed. He has bought into this program and understands his role. Again, he is going to be a guy that has been through five years of football here so he has to show leadership. I am going to ask him to do a lot as far as special teams. He understands all of that and he wants to perform to the best of his ability.”
Gonzales is putting a lot on the senior receivers. There is an excellent group of athletes behind them on the depth chart, but these seniors need to help get the younger guys ready and lead by example.
“The big thing about the seniors is they need to perform the best of their career,” Gonzales said. “If they do that, the rest of these guys will see that and we will continue to grow.”
One player that was expected to be a senior this year or drawing a paycheck in the NFL is Andre “Bubba” Caldwell (6-1, 202, Jr.). He was injured against Tennessee last season in the third game and missed the rest of the season. Back in the spring, he was still recovering from his injury and participated at half speed. Even so, he still looked really good going half speed and seems to really know the offense now.
“Bubba made big strides during two-a-days last year,” Gonzales said. “He was a guy that was becoming the guy for us. He is a strong guy that brings the added abilities to go deep and make people miss. That was something we didn’t have when he went down last year. He is an explosive guy and he is with these older guys where he will be expected to be a leader. I am looking for him to be the guy that is explosive and be a leader.”
The Gators brought in three receivers in Urban Meyer’s first recruiting class at Florida in Nyan Boateng (6-2, 205, So.), Louis Murphy (6-3, 195, So.), and David Nelson (6-5, 204, Fr.). Two were Army All-Americans (Boateng and Nelson) and the third was a player that came in physically ready to compete. None of the three made headway getting on the field at crunch time in a season with all the injuries to the receivers. Gonzales expects bigger things from the three and he knows they have some added incentive behind them on the depth chart.
“I am just expecting more consistency out of Nyan, Louis, and David,” Gonzales said. “All of them are realistically still freshmen. What they need to do is perform to a level where they can step in and I don’t have to worry about them. They have to compete now. They have a group of guys behind them that is very explosive, fast, and can catch the ball. Nothing is given to anyone in this program. It is a reward based program. They have to put forth the effort. They will compete like anyone else to maintain a two spot or get to a number one (starting spot). One thing I am not afraid if is playing freshmen that are gifted players.”
An added bonus to the receiving corps this past spring was the transition of Cornelius Ingram “C.I.” (6-4, 225, So.) from quarterback to tight end. Actually more of a slot receiver when he is in the game, Ingram was spectacular at times when he got the ball and did something with it.
“One thing that C.I. gives us is a big body guy that is physical and strong,” Gonzales said. “He caught on in the spring. He is such a big target and has such soft hands. As long as he continues to improve he can be a definite threat for us, because we can match him up with a linebacker or put him in the slot and get another mismatch. We are looking forward to seeing him run out there. He just needs to be sure of what he is doing, because when he does, he plays very fast. For him we need to have a package that he completely understands and that will let him play fast.”
This year the Gators landed what might be the best receiver class in the country. Time will tell whether all of them stay at the position, but for now the three Army All-Americans in Jarred Fayson (6-0, 201, Fr.), Percy Harvin (5-11, 178, Fr.), and Jamar Hornsby (6-4, 184, Fr.) will be matched with perhaps as equally talented Riley Cooper (6-4, 206, Fr.), and Justin Williams (6-2, 184. Fr.).
Physically, the group is as talented as any receiver group brought into Florida. Despite all that talent, it remains to be seen whether the Gators will see some production out of them on the field. Each may have a role in their first season that will allow them to get on the field. The sooner they accept that role, the better the Gators will be.
“It’s hard to tell (what we will get),” Gonzales said about the freshmen. “I know they have been throwing out there this summer. One thing I want the guys to learn is that whatever it takes for them to do, they need to do it. That means on kickoff returns as all of them have been returners, some of them may be asked to be on the front line. They may have to block a punt. They may not catch the ball but they have to recognize their role. They have to see their role on the team. Let them understand that it is team before them. It may different from what they have seen in the past, but that is what we are looking for.”
REDMAN REACTION: The recruiting class with Reidel Anthony, Ike Hilliard, Jacquez Green, Travis McGriff, Jamie Richardson, and Nafis Karim along with Chris Doering on campus at one time was the greatest collection of Gator receivers, perhaps forever. Although three seniors and probably a fourth player that make up almost all of the returning experience will probably be gone next year, this current group of receivers has a chance to be ridiculously good and better than that one, amazingly.
The Meyer offense relies on a great number of receivers to get the mismatches it wants across the field. If the young guys can catch on quickly enough, it makes it much easier to leave the fullback off the field and will really let this offense reach its high octane levels. This receiver group is one to really get very excited about.