Wide open spring for Gator receivers

The job market is pretty bleak on the defensive side of the football at the University of Florida where so many returning players will be fighting for an expanded role in what is expected to be a big year for the Gators. The market is much kinder on the opposite side of the football. And that is especially true for those inexperienced players looking for an opportunity to impress coaches at the receiver position. Today, we’ll look at the various players hopeful to make a positive impression during spring practice.

TIGHT ENDS: Aaron Hernandez (6-3, 255) junior; Desmond Parks (6-4, 225) true freshman

Aaron Hernandez capped the 2008 season with a terrific performance in the BCS National Championship Game, leading the team with five receptions for 57 yards. His emergence toward a more expanded role was expected. However, when practice resumed in August, the Gators the lost senior Cornelius Ingram, eliminating a challenging double tight end look that former offensive coordinator Dan Mullen used in the spring. 

One year later, the tight end position promises to present a challenge for the Gators in the spring. Early enrollee Desmond Parks replaces Ingram as the second tight end. Meanwhile, Parks and Hernandez will have to learn under the tutelage of new tight ends coach Brian White. The numbers at the position are ultra thin, so the experience Parks receives this spring will be essential, especially in light of the effect Ingram’s injury had on the Florida offense. Thankfully, Hernandez was not an inexperienced true freshman.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see the coaches add a third player to the tight end mix this spring, shoring up depth in the event of injury. Could redshirt freshman T.J. Pridemore (6-3, 240) move from fullback to tight end? There will be a lot of repetitions for Parks this spring. The Florida coaches know what Hernandez can do and he’ll be tuning up for an even bigger role in the Florida passing game with the losses of Harvin and Murphy, especially with the absence of Riley Cooper, who will spend the spring playing baseball. 

WIDE RECEIVERS: Riley Cooper (6-3, 215) senior; David Nelson (6-5, 215) RS senior; Deonte Thompson (6-0, 195) RS sophomore; Carl Moore (6-3, 220) senior; Brandon James (5-7, 186) senior; Justin Williams (6-1, 205) RS junior; Paul Wilson (6-0, 190) RS sophomore; T.J. Lawrence (6-1, 185) RS freshman;

Frankie Hammond, Jr (6-0, 170) RS freshman

There will be a lot of individual instruction between inexperienced players and receivers coach Billy Gonzales, quarterback Tim Tebow and veteran David Nelson this spring. As it was mentioned, senior wide receiver Riley Cooper will miss the spring playing with the Florida baseball team. Cooper has the most starts among the receivers, unless you look inside to Hernandez. Some seem to believe that the Gators are devoid of experience at wide receiver. That’s not quite the case though. Senior David Nelson hasn’t secured the number of receptions, touchdowns or repetitions that the departed starters received. However, Nelson has experienced an expanded role over the past couple of years as a quality reserve. He even picked up a few starts last season, including the Southeastern Conference Championship and BCS National Championship Game. Nelson really came on during last season and is emerging as one of the leaders of the offense. He is a quality individual who will always put the team first and that will benefit the young players.

Senior Carl Moore caught 14 passes for 184 yards in his first season at Florida. It can take time for Juco transfers to adjust in the SEC. This will be an important spring for Moore to further establish himself for an enhanced role in the Florida receiving corps. If he can meet the challenges ahead, it will be a big boost to the Gators offense. 

Return specialist Brandon James has also started at wide receiver for Florida and his big play potential in space will certainly be a match-up that offensive coordinator Steve Addazio will attempt to exploit for the Gators. You don’t replace a Percy Harvin, but James figures to be one Addazio’s best options for making big plays. It’s unlikely that James will get much if any action this spring as he is recovering from a broken foot that required surgery in the offseason.

There are two receivers that I’ll especially be curious to focus on this spring — Deonte Thompson and Justin Williams. I really thought Thompson would have been utilized more often in the 2008 passing game. He has 18 receptions for 269 yards (14.9 yards per catch) and three touchdowns. Thompson does have a long reception for 46 yards late in the 2008 season against South Carolina. Perhaps we’ll see a giant leap forward this spring? He is a superb talent who should be very comfortable after his two years on campus with the Florida offense.

Williams has secured most of his playing time on the Florida special teams. He played his first two years on the offensive side of the ball at wide receiver. He was moved to safety in hopes that he could see additional playing time while shoring up the Gators ’08 depth chart. Hopefully, Williams experience will help him make the transition back to wide receiver as a more productive player.  It will be interesting to see how Williams fits into the mix after a couple of weeks of competition. 

A broken wrist kept Paul Wilson out of action last season. The former Lakeland High School star has the heart, toughness and attitude that coaches love. Furthermore, he’s a sharp guy from a terrific family, so rooting for him to make some inroads on the depth chart is rather easy. I have no doubt that Wilson is a guy that will go the distance for the strength and conditioning staff at Florida to get himself ready to compete. It will be very interesting to see Wilson perform this spring. 

Redshirt freshmen T.J. Lawrence and Frankie Hammond Jr. will be two other players that will peak the curiosity of fans and members of the media during spring practice. Lawrence was named Scout team player of the week for his efforts in helping Florida get ready to play Florida State. He is a tremendous athlete. Hammond was among the top high school long jumpers and high jumpers in the world. Are they (Lawrence and Hammond) ready to challenge for playing time? 

Nelson and Deonte Thompson will probably be two of the first guys out with the starting receivers in the spring. Will Moore be improved? Much improved? This spring will also be important for several inexperienced players who are coming of injuries, position changes, or redshirt years. Wilson, Williams, Lawrence, and Hammond will get plenty of reps to demonstrate how far they have come in the program. And the Gators need a few players to step forward.