Updated: Jul 22, 2019
Top to bottom, it’s the deepest unit in the SEC and perhaps nationally.
GAINESVILLE — Tyrie Cleveland took to Twitter Tuesday to share a photo of his position group, considered Florida’s best WR corps in more than a decade. “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much,” Cleveland said in the tweet.
Top to bottom, it’s the deepest unit in the SEC and perhaps nationally. And that’s in spite of a top-50 overall WR recruit from the Sunshine State spurning the Gators for four consecutive recruiting cycles (2014-17). It started in 2014 with 5-star wideout Ermon Lane, who flipped from Florida to Florida State late in the process. The following year, the Gators lost another head-to-head battle with FSU for 5-star receiver George Campbell. UF rebounded in the 2016 class with five WR signees, highlighted by Houston’s Tyrie Cleveland. However, the Gators missed on their No. 1 overall in-state target, Nate Craig-Myers, who signed with Auburn. That trend continued in the 2017 cycle, as top-50 overall recruits and South Florida products Trevon Grimes (Ohio State) and Jerry Jeudy (Alabama) both passed on UF and chose to go out of state for school.
The Gators did land James Robinson on signing day that year, but a heart condition ended his career before it started. Florida finally found success with top-100 receivers from the Sunshine State in the 2018 class, but Jacob Copeland redshirted as a freshman and Justin Watkins was dismissed from the team last summer. Three of UF’s five WR signees from 2017-18 have been lost to attrition, yet the position is now the strongest it’s been since 2008. How?
Veteran coaching, player development and a pair of impact transfers have transformed Florida’s WR corps in just one year. “You always try to recruit … but our job here is to develop depth,” co-offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach Billy Gonzales said. “There’s a lot of places that might want to play one or two people and that’s it. That’s what they play, and then four years later you’ll hear it’s somebody else. We’re trying to develop depth, and I think it’s paid off for us.” The proof is in the pudding.
Under the tutelage of Gonzales, Josh Hammond, Freddie Swain and Kadarius Toney made significant strides and changed the dynamic of Florida’s slot position. The addition of transfers Grimes and Van Jefferson gave the Gators more weapons out wide with Cleveland, and freshman tight end Kyle Pitts also switched to receiver. The development of that depth did indeed pay off in 2018. Eleven different Gators caught a touchdown pass (28 total scores), marking the first time since 2009 at least that many players had a TD reception. All UF pass catchers combined for just 10 touchdowns in 2017. Florida’s receivers accounted for 23 of the 28 scores last season, and the entire group returns this fall. “If you look, we have some guys now, with all of our receivers back, ” head coach Dan Mullen said. “It’s the same guys, but now you’re talking about another year in the program and understanding the offensive scheme and understanding how to make plays within the offense. These guys are bigger, faster, stronger. I think you see that growth in Year 2 of what they are able to.”
Heading into 2019, Cleveland is no longer the only proven player at the position. Jefferson led the team in receptions (35), yards (563) and touchdowns (6) last season, and Grimes emerged late in the year with his breakout performance at FSU. It’s pick your poison in the slot with Hammond, Swain and Toney, whose expected to see his touches expand in the “Percy” role. And with Copeland now healthy and Pitts’ permanent position change, good luck trying to cover Florida’s WR corps. “You’ve seen a guy like Trevon stepping up and being a mismatch out there on the field,” Mullen said. “You want to roll the coverage over to Trevon, you’re leaving Van or Tyrie one-on-one. Then you’ve got Kyle Pitts with size, Freddie and Josh and those guys inside — it’s great to cause mismatch problems. “That’s what I want from the offense. You don’t want to design where you’re always trying to get the ball to a guy. We want to be able to just run the offense and take what the defense gives us. Having the depth at the receiver position, and the talent, allows you to do that.”
Many Florida fans complained about WR recruiting after four straight years of striking out on a top-50 recruit from the Sunshine State. Things have still worked out for the Gators despite those misses, especially in hindsight. Lane never lived up to his 5-star billing at FSU, switching from receiver to safety and going undrafted in 2018. Campbell didn’t pan out with the Seminoles either, catching 11 passes in four years before leaving for West Virginia. Craig-Myers regressed during his time at Auburn and decided to transfer mid-season, landing at Colorado State last December.
This isn’t to suggest stars don’t matter — the Gators have top-100 WR Leonard Manuel committed for 2020 — but landing elite players is just one part of the equation. Not every 5-star recruit will become a sure-fire starter in college. They must be coached up and developed. Judging by last year and his first stint at UF, this group is in good hands with Gonzales.