The bad news for Florida is that the Gators lost their leading wide receiver from a year ago. The good news is that won’t account for much of a drop in production.
The Gators had only one wideout with more than 20 catches a year ago, and the position group has been woefully underwhelming for the past two years.
Today, GatorCountry.com stops to take a look at the wide receiver position and how it performed in spring practice.
Overview: Florida returned the vast majority of its receiving corps this spring, with only Deonte Thompson leaving and a handful of veterans back.
The Gators saw flashes of potential from a handful of receivers last fall, including speedster Andre Debose, Quinton Dunbar and Frankie Hammond Jr. This spring, Florida was counting on those guys to take the next step.
Surprisingly, it was a quiet spring for the veteran receivers. Injuries hit the position hard, and at one point Florida had just four healthy scholarship wideouts.
In fact, none of the usual suspects made much noise this spring, allowing an early enrollee true freshman to steal the show at receiver. Latroy Pittman, working in his first spring practice, received rave reviews from Day 1 and backed it up with his play in the spring game.
Pittman has now firmly worked his way into the rotation, and the four receivers mentioned above will be counted on to provide much more production than the Gators got a year ago.
Depth Chart: It’s hard to make much sense of the depth chart at receiver, but Dunbar, Debose and Hammond Jr. appear to be the top three wide receivers, followed closely by Pittman. They will see the most time this season, and all could probably be considered starters at this point.
Behind them, a handful of players who have been around a few years still haven’t made much noise. Solomon Patton flashed some playmaking ability in the spring game, but the Gators are still looking for more out of the backups.
Strengths: It’s hard to say there’s a collective strength for the wide receiver group right now, but if there is one it’s probably their blocking ability.
Dunbar had a handful of terrific blocks on the perimeter to free up runs to the outside, while Pittman also had one or two really nice blocks. Hammond Jr. has shown the ability throughout his career to block better than his size would indicate.
Debose has incredible breakaway speed, and showed repeatedly last season he can get behind defenders for big plays. His 27 yards per catch last season led the team, and he will be counted on to stretch the field defensively.
Pittman has several skills this spring the Florida receiving corps has been missing for a few years now. He has terrific body control and excellent hands.
More importantly, Pittman showed the ability to get open consistently despite a lack of breakaway speed, something that will be vital to Florida’s passing game next year with a pair of new quarterbacks.
Patton also adds a slightly different element to the mix as a guy who can move in and out of the backfield. He showed that versatility and his speed on a 30-yard gain on an end around to the left side in the spring game.
Weaknesses: Unfortunately for Florida, receiver is one of the positions where the weaknesses are much more recognizable than the strengths.
The biggest problem is the inability of the receivers as a whole to get separation from the defensive backs. Aside from Debose, there just weren’t many last year that were able to get loose.
When the receivers have been able to get open, they’ve been pretty capable for the most part. This isn’t a unit that suffers from bad drops frequently or boneheaded plays.
Individually, there are a handful of issues. Hammond Jr. is probably Florida’s most consistent receiver, but he sometimes struggles making plays in traffic.
Dunbar’s biggest issue is simply disappearing at times. He has reliable hands, but he hasn’t been able to create many windows for himself to get open looks. When he does, it seems like he’s in the end zone.
Debose probably has the most potential in the group as a big-time playmaker. He was able to get open on fly routes all year long last year, and he showed the ability to make some nice catches over the middle when open. His biggest issue is simply staying in the playbook and getting more and more comfortable with the offense.
It’s hard to find much fault with Pittman, since only three practices were open this spring.
Stephen Alli and Ja’Juan Story have both had consistency issues, with Alli dropping a lot of balls and Story still struggling to learn certain assignments and stay healthy.
Room for Improvement: For the receivers, it’s really simple. They just have to be much more consistent moving forward. The play doesn’t have to be flashy with Florida’s offense, it just has to be consistent.
Route running has got to improve as a group, and that’s an area new offensive coordinator Brent Pease has really targeted. He’s working with Aubrey Hill and the receivers to make sure they know how to find the soft spots in coverage to get open.
Technically, there isn’t much this group isn’t capable of doing. They catch well, they run fairly well after the catch and they block.
The production simply has to improve, and that means more guys have to step up. That a true freshman was able to step into the spotlight this spring could be good or bad for the unit.
It could mean the Gators have a star in the making or it could mean the rest of the unit still hasn’t quite gotten it just yet.