By: Buddy Martin
He was my favorite new player three years ago. It had been long drinks of water between exciting, game-changing wide receivers. Finally! I expected great things out of him.
Not that we expected to see the reincarnation of Percy Harvin or Cris Collinsworth or Carlos Alvarez, but there was hope that Kadarius Toney would fill a talent void and give Dan Mullen’s offense somebody who could once again generate game-breaking excitement with his hands on the ball.
When he left Eight-Mile, Ala. and arrived in Gainesville, Kadarius Toney looked very much like that player, with his speed and impressive shake-and-bake move. Some referred to the former Blount High School quarterback as “The Human Joy Stick,” a term sometimes reserved to describe Baltimore Ravens jitterbugging wunderkind Lamar Jackson.
To watch Toney’s creative dance style, bodies flying around him as he changed directions like a blue darter, was a thing of beauty. There were moments when he flirted with the spectacular. Ankle-breaking gyrations that looked like they were about to bust him loose, even if sometimes it took 40 yards east and west to get 10 due north. Any minute now, Toney was going to the house. Except he rarely did.
There’s a lot we don’t know about Toney who apparently is a semi-accomplished Hip-Hop song writer and producer. My younger friends tell me he’s got a pretty good song he is showcasing on a new album “SplitWorld,” called “Lifestyle.” His artist name is Yung Joka. Me, I know more about Sock Hops than Hip Hop, but my millennial friend bought the song, likes it and has played it a bunch.
As to why Toney waited late to declare that he would not enter the NFL Draft? Perhaps he was waiting for an evaluation, although he has told friends he thought he had enough video highlights to be chosen.
Most experts agreed Toney he needed one more year to sharpen his game.
Some people, like former SEC MVP Shane Matthews was “surprised he was even considering coming out.”
Let’s just go ahead and say it: Toney didn’t get the job done last season and his numbers were paltry. He caught just 10 passes (9th best on the team), just one for one touchdown, 66 yards, in the opening game with Miami. And although his speed and elusiveness were delicious – Chris Fowler got all jacked up and sounded enthralled – there wasn’t much of anything the rest of the regular season. A shoulder injury vs. Tennessee Martin pretty much put him on ice.
Somewhere along the way, the stardom of Kadarius Toney was derailed, or never really materialized. So what happened to the kid from Eight Mile was going to light up the Gator Nation?
We can throw out three or four excuses. Injuries. Slow progress on the learning curve. Mechanics lacking, routes weren’t pretty and he was not a world class catcher of the football. The unspoken word was that Tony often lacked concentration and focus. That he lacked the polished skill set of a receiver.
“He’s supposed to be a Yards After Catch guy,” said one critic. “Sometimes he forgot to catch the ball first.”
All of that, plus the receivers room was pretty crowded. You seldom see a team with four competent senior wide receivers like Van Jefferson, Freddie Swain, Josh Hammond and Tyrie Cleveland. The one quality they all had that Toney couldn’t be taught? Consistency. Their mentoring will be valued by Kadarius one day. But even if he had been healthy, Toney would have had to earn those catches from four guys who helped their backup quarterback Kyle Trask go from an overachieving backup to a first-rate starter.
Close observers of Gator practice say what's missing is that Toney still hasn't quite made the transition to receiver, despite earnest coaching efforts of Billy Gonzalez.
This could be the year the window of opportunity opens for him to put his skill set on display, along with Tre Grimes, Kyle Pitts and Jacob Copeland – plus a trio of red-shirt freshmen in Dionte Marks, Ja’markis Weston and Trent Whittemore.
The upside looks extremely promising and the raw talent is compelling. Remember, he played everything at Mattie T. Blount High in Eight-Mile, Ala. – mostly quarterback. So the only wide receiver experience he has is on-the-job training. This could be the season Kadarius gets an open window to run routes and catch the ball.
When Toney announced he was coming back for his senior year, it gave me pause to reflect on his curious case so I decided to ask people who know a lot more about football than I do, who played and/or coached at the highest level.
Lee McGriff is one of the keenest observers of Gator football I know, not just because he’s a color analyst for the Gator IMG Radio Network, or that he was an All-SEC wide receiver, or that he coached receivers for Doug Dickey, or that his son Travis was an All-SEC receiver at Florida. He also happens to be a scholar on Gator receivers who has been studying the position first-hand since Charlie Casey became Florida’s first All-American pass catcher in the mid-1960s.
McGriff has not only played the position at a very high level, but has coached it, studied it and broadcast the performances of some Florida’s best receivers. Tony reminds him of his former teammate Wes Chandler, a Pro Bowl player.
Calling himself – justifiably – a “connoisseur” of the history of Gator wide receivers, Lee actually has logged so many long hours observing practice that over the years he jokes that has become a scholar and earned a mythical PhD in the subject.
“I'm old enough to have seen the very best upward, which was Charlie Casey,” said McGriff. “And from being a young guy, I identified with being a wide receiver, wanted to be one. So I paid close attention.”
“I played with Wes Chandler when I was a senior and he was a freshman. I watched him closely. I have also paid attention to Toney. He's more Wes Chandler like than he's anybody else. Wes obviously was a great player, but he wasn't going to win the Olympics. Don't misunderstand me. People get confused. Wes could run really well. And he was a high school running back. But he had this fluidity that you see, a change of direction that you see. And Toney, he's Wes Chandler-like.
“So when Wes got to Florida, they quickly made him -- imagine this! -- my backup. And so they put him at receiver right away and he started being taught with great repetition of how to be a wide receiver. And I can tell you, it was not magical from the beginning. You could tell he could run after he caught the ball, but he didn't always catch the ball and he didn't always run a great route. So it was a little bit problematic for West for a while, but they left it there and did it over and over and he got it.
“I see Tony in that light. And he's a guy that's so versatile, a quarterback and a running quarterback and in high school. So you get him in the return game, you let him run jets sweeps. There's so much that you want to do with him because he's so versatile. But what he hasn't mastered is the art of being a great receiver. Physically, it's all there. Sometimes his concentration on the ball breaks down and he didn't catch it, not because he can't. Same thing happened to Wes Chandler.”
Former MVP of the SEC and NFL veteran Shane Matthews agrees mostly.
“He's been injured here and there,” said Matthews. “And he's really not a receiver right now. And nothing against Toney, but, hopefully he can stay healthy next year and they can utilize his abilities.
“I think it's great that he's coming back. He can have another year, another spring under Billy Gonzalez and try to improve from a route-running standpoint and put some plays on tape for NFL guys to say, ‘Hey, I can't play receiver at the next level. Here I am running a corner route here … Here I am running a dig or a comeback or a post, whatever it may be.’ But I think he needed to come back and I'm glad he's and going to.”
The question is how Mullen will use Toney in the vertical passing game, whether he can break off a quick slant, or what other plays he can design to get Toney more touches. This appears to be his time.
“He's been here a while, so it's time for him to grab the brass ring,” said McGriff. “He's not been consistently intense and competitive to the level they've asked him. But most of his life, he's never had to do that. So and sometimes that keeps guys with lots of talent away from being great players. So that's a question. This still hasn't been totally answered. But I gotta believe at this point he believes he's running out of bullets. He better come on within if he wants to keep playing.”
Young Joka has his work cut out.