In 2011 it was running back Chris Rainey who led the Florida Gators in receptions and in 2012 it was tight end Jordan Reed. Not since Urban Meyer’s final season in 2010 has a wide receiver led the team in receptions.
The talent and speed has always been there. Quinton Dunbar, Solomon Patton and Andre Debose oozed talent but productivity never matched either the talent or the expectations, which raises the question: If it isn’t the talent could it have been the coaching? It’s been a revolving door since 2010. Zach Azzanni coached the wide receivers in 2010 and Aubrey Hill coached them in 2011, Will Muschamp’s first year as head coach. Last season, amid rumors that he was a figure in the NCAA investigation of the University of Miami regarding impermissible benefits, Hill stepped down and graduate assistant Bush Hamdan took his place.
There was at least one wide receiver that was unhappy with the way Hamdan went about coaching his position group.
“It was very tough,” Debose said. “That’s kind of the reason I feel like I didn’t play last year. It was just a shock. I’ve grown to have a great relationship with Aubrey Hill and to have him just leave and to have an assistant come in and coach me …”
Debose’s voice trailed off. Then he thought about what he was about to say before changing pace.
“It was just a big shock to me.”
When former Kentucky head coach Joker Phillips became available, Muschamp was quick to snap him up and bring him to Florida. Phillips was a wide receiver at Kentucky from 1981-84 and played with the Washington Redskins from 1985-87. Phillips was a wide receivers coach at five different stops before ascending to the offensive coordinator’s role at Kentucky under Rich Brooks. When Brooks retired, Phillips took over as head coach from 2010-12 but after three losing seasons he was fired.
Phillips jumped at the chance to join the Florida staff when Muschamp offered. Explaining the decision at the Palm Beach Gator Club earlier in the summer, Phillips said, “There are three things that I decided [about coming to coach at Florida]. I wanted to stay in the south and drink sweet tea; I wanted to be able to recruit some of the elite athletes across the country; and third, I wanted to win a damn championship. Coach Muschamp gave me an opportunity to do all those things.”
At Kentucky, Phillips was responsible for an entire team, offense, defense and special teams. Phillips even was the play-caller on offense, calling all of the plays from the sideline. At Florida, Phillips is able to put all of his focus into one position group and really work on the small details that make his players better.
“My job as the receiver coach is to get you where you need to be on time.” Phillips said. “Whether it’s in the weight room, meetings, the classroom, curl routes, slant routes. Get you to where the quarterback knows exactly where you’re going to be at the exact time.”
Phillips’ impact on the team has been noticeable to even the most casual of fans. Florida’s top three pass catchers are wide receivers this season and Phillips should get a lot of the credit for transforming the unit.
“A huge impact,” Solomon Patton said of the impact Phillips has made. “We’re learning how to run our routes the right way, at the right depth. Technique-wise and catching the ball, he has made a real huge impact.”
While Patton now sees the impact that Phillips has had on himself and the receivers as a group, there was some push back initially from the receivers. Senior center Jonotthan Harrison said he noticed a change in the group under Phillips, even if it wasn’t immediate.
Harrison explained, “At first when he came in a lot of the receivers were complaining, ‘Oh man, he’s mean, he’s harsh, blah, blah, blah.’ Then we just slowly saw them actually appreciating all the extra that he was bringing to the table. Really respect him as a coach; really respect the amount of discipline he requires from the receivers as we’re seeing the results every day.”
The results are tangible. The receivers are on pace to surpass the productivity of the past two seasons combined . In 2011 and 2012 the wide receivers combined for 142 catches, which is 49 less than USC wide receiver Marqise Lee had over the same time period. This season, the receivers are on pace to catch 172 passes.
Muschamp has a much deserved reputation as a great recruiter, evident with Florida’s overall talent level. However, , his best recruiting job probably didn’t involve a four- or five-star high school recruit. That’s the pitch he gave to Joker Phillips to get him to join the staff at Florida.
Phillips has turned what was Florida’s weakest positional group on offense into a group that is confident and reliable. Those are two words that haven’t been associated with Florida’s receivers in a long time.