Updated: Jul 3, 2020
(Third in a series of position-by-position analysis of the 2020 Florida Gators)
Three receivers from Florida’s 11-2 2019 team were drafted and a fourth got a free agent contract. Combined they accounted for 139 catches, 1,771 receiving yards and 16 touchdowns. The foursome of Van Jefferson, Freddie Swain, Tyrie Cleveland and Josh Hammond were fearless blockers and special teams demons so their value goes far beyond catching the football. Losing four quality players like this would be reason to panic at most schools but while they will be missed, it’s next man up for Dan Mullen, who has four quality receivers with experience ready to step up in 2020 and a slew of talented kids waiting in the wings, ready to make their mark.
The four that step into the limelight this season are tight end Kyle Pitts (6-6, 240, JR), a legitimate candidate for All-America and Mackey Award honors; and wide receivers Trevon Grimes (6-5, 220, SR), Jacob Copeland (6-0, 195, RSO) and Kadarius Toney (5-11, 195, SR). They combined to catch 118 passes for 1,607 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2019. They present such diversity in their skill sets that they will be a nightmare for opposing defensive coordinators.
Pitts emerged as the best receiving tight end in the SEC as a sophomore last season when he caught a team high 54 passes for 649 yards and five touchdowns. He has tight end size and wide receiver speed so he’s too big for corners and safeties and too fast for your typical linebacker. This season he will be coached by Tim Brewster, who turned former college basketball star Antonio Gates into a tight ends legend in the NFL and helped Nick O’Leary win the Mackey Award at FSU so as good as he was last year, Pitts should be even better this season. Pitts and UF quarterback Kyle Trask should be one of the best pitch and catch duos in the country. What makes Pitts so valuable is that he’s at his best running routes in the middle of the field, which opens the outside for the wide receivers and the under routes for a make-you-miss type like Toney. If there is a question with Pitts, it is can he become a more effective blocker when he has to fill the role of the traditional tight end with his hand on the ground?
In most offenses, Grimes would be assured of 60-70 catches, but Mullen’s offense spreads the ball around so the numbers are deceiving. Last season Grimes had 33 catches for 491 yards and three touchdowns, stats that only figure to improve this year as he is likely to be the Gators’ top threat to stretch the field. In two seasons as a Gator, Grimes has caught 59 passes for 855 yards and five touchdowns. With his size and strength, he’s also an exceptional blocker in the screen game that is so prominent in this offense. We’ve seen glimpses of Grimes’ ability to turn on the jets and blow by people (see Tennessee 2019), so if there is a question it is can he become such a consistent deep threat that he forces over-the-top coverage by one of the safeties, thus opening up the rest of the field?
It has never been a question of potential with Copeland, just a matter of when it all comes together. He began to emerge as a real threat starting in the South Carolina game last year to finish strong with 21 catches for 273 yards and two touchdowns. A hard worker in the weight room this warrior who has transformed his body into one that gives him the look of a body builder, Copeland has the physical strength to work the middle of the field plus the speed to blow by corners. He was one of the top wide receivers in the nation in the 2018 recruiting class so it is time for him to emerge as a go-to guy. Consistency will be the issue. Copeland struggled with the drops early in his career so can he be the guy who is money when the ball comes his way?
The X-factor in this group is Toney, who figured to have a breakout junior year until injured in game two last season. He missed six full games and really didn’t get back into football shape until game 10 against Vanderbilt so his season numbers (12-59 rushing, 10-194 receiving for one touchdown) are only a fraction of what they figured to be after he scored that dazzling touchdown on Florida’s first series in the 2019 season opener against Miami. Toney’s career stats are more indicative of what he’s capable of doing – 50 catches for 606 yards and two touchdowns; 47-419 and one TD rushing. A healthy Toney who could be good for 30-plus receptions and at least that many carries per game could force opposing defensive coordinators to burn the midnight oil trying to figure out how to defend an already multi-faceted offense that has a receiver capable of turning a two-yard pass into a 30-yard gain, one who can line up outside, in the slot or in the backfield. And lest we forget, Toney is a former high school quarterback who can throw the ball. Toney missed three games as a true freshman in 2017 and then had the shoulder injury last year that more or less torpedoed his season. Can he stay healthy for 12 full games plus the post season? A healthy Toney adds a unique dimension to the Florida offense and expands the play calling for Mullen so his contributions will be vital to a healthy and dynamic Florida attack.
Just those four give the Gators one of the best receiving units in the Southeastern Conference but behind them Mullen has better depth and talent than he’s had in his two previous seasons starting with a pair of transfers. Texas grad transfer Jordan Pouncey (6-2, 205) has two years of eligibility remaining and Penn State transfer Justin Shorter (6-4, 226) is a former 5-star recruit, also with two years of eligibility. Shorter has applied for an NCAA waiver that would grant immediate eligibility. Pouncey was a 4-star recruit coming out of Winter Park High School who simply got lost in the shuffle at Texas. He’s a big body with good hands and very good, although not blazing speed. Shorter was under-used at Penn State (15 catches, 157 yards in two seasons) but he has sub-4.5 speed and the kind of size that will make him a truly difficult matchup for both corners and safeties.
Will this be the year Rick Wells (6-0, 205) finally puts it all together? Somehow, he’s never been able to translate great springs into productive falls. Mullen constantly speaks in praiseworthy terms, but so far Wells’ UF career is three catches for 33 yards.
Grimes, Copeland, Toney, Pouncey, Shorter and Wells are the only wide receivers with real playing time but there is an enormous amount of young talent behind them in the form of redshirt freshmen Ja’Markis Weston (6-3, 217), Trent Whittemore (6-3, 195) and Dionte Marks (6-2, 180) and incoming freshmen Xzavier Henderson (6-4, 180) and Ja’Quavian Fraziars (6-4, 200), both 4-star recruits who have outstanding speed and dazzling high school highlight reels.
Behind Pitts at tight end, the one to watch is sophomore Keon Zipperer (6-2, 235), who showed enormous potential as a true freshman when he caught three passes for 35 yards and a TD. He figures to be more of a hybrid who will be an H-back or line up in the slot. Kemore Gamble (6-3, 241) caught seven passes in 2018 but didn’t register a reception in 2019. Lange played in all 13 games, mostly on special teams and as a blocker when the Gators had the football. Freshman Jonathan Odom (6-5, 250) is the son of former UF All-American left tackle Jason Odom. He will likely redshirt.
THE SCHOLARSHIP RECEIVERS
Jordan Pouncey (6-3, 205, GR/Transfer from Texas)
Rick Wells (6-0, 205, RSR)
Kadarius Toney (5-11, 195, SR) Trevon Grimes (6-5, 220, SR) Justin Shorter (6-4, 226, JR/Transfer from Penn State)
Jacob Copeland (6-0, 195, RSO)
Ja’Markis Weston (6-3, 217, RFR) Trent Whittemore (6-3, 195, RFR) Dionte Marks (6-2, 180, RFR) Ja’Quvian Fraziars 6-4, 200, FR)
Xzavier Henderson (6-4, 180, FR)
Kemore Gamble (6-3, 241, RJR) Kyle Pitts (6-6, 245, JR)
Dante Lange (6-5, 252, RSO) Keon Zipperer (6-2. 235, SO) Jonathan Odom (6-5, 250, FR)
ASSESSING THE POSITION: Mullen has to feel like the proverbial kid in the candy store when he sees his receivers room. He’s got size, speed, experience and depth, more in one single place than he’s had since arriving at UF in 2018. The key word here is potential. The potential is enormous, but can the combination of a Mullen offense and exceptional coaching by Billy Gonzales (wide receivers) and Tim Brewster (tight ends) help turn potential into on-the-field productivity?
It helps that the Gators have four experienced receivers to replace the four they lost to the NFL. Pitts and Grimes are proven commodities while Copeland can be a stud if he can overcome a penchant for drops that he’s shown in the two previous seasons. There is no question that Toney is the X-factor in the offense but he has to stay healthy. If he’s healthy, it will open up every aspect of Florida’s passing game as well as add a dimension to the running game that will loosen up defenses.
But it’s rare that you can get through an SEC season with only four receivers so Mullen needs productivity from his transfers as well as contributions from the kids. If Shorter gets the waiver from the NCAA, he should see the field immediately and contribute, potentially in a very big way. Kids like Weston, Fraziars and Henderson are likely to get a shot at playing time. At tight end, Mullen needs Zipperer to be ready to take on an expanded role.
All of Florida’s scholarship receivers are in Gainesville because they have the potential to play at a high level, but they have to take that next step and turn potential into productivity. Mullen has all the pieces to the puzzle to provide Kyle Trask with an outstanding set of targets. If these guys realize their potential then Florida’s passing game could easily match 2019 when the Gators threw for 300.8 yards per game and 33 touchdown passes, the best per game yardage totals since Steve Spurrier’s last season as head coach in 2001 and the most touchdown passes since the national championship season of 2008. Should Florida come close to matching last year’s yardage and TD totals, this should provide the Gators with the most dynamic offense they’ve had since the last national championship.