It has been four years since the Florida Gators have seen one of their wide receivers get drafted by an NFL team, an especially jarring statistic when one considers that the program had 19 total selected in the 17 drafts the league held from 1994-2010.
Combining poor recruiting with lackluster development, inconsistent quarterback play and overall uninspiring offenses, Florida has been unable to get the necessary production out of the position to win football games and propel players to the next level.
As the 2014 season fast approaches, it appears to be unanimous around the team that the Gators possess more firepower at the position than they have since the 2009 campaign.
Florida does, however, face a couple of obstacles on its way to having the position perform as well as head coach Will Muschamp and new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper both expect with Roper’s newly-installed offense.
Wide receivers coach Joker Phillips, who in 2013 notably helped some of UF’s wideouts play the best they had in their careers, was forced to resign over the summer due to a recruiting violation. He has been replaced by former Gators quarterback Chris Leak, formerly a graduate assistant who has never coached the position before.
Florida is also only returning only one true starting receiver from 2013 in redshirt senior Quinton Dunbar. Appearing primed for a breakout campaign after hauling in a career-high seven passes for a career-most 98 yards in the second week against Miami, Dunbar did not catch a single touchdown and ended the season with just 548 yards, in large part due to UF’s problems at quarterback.
One of two seniors to “jump out” at Muschamp this offseason, Dunbar may finally this season have the opportunity he has been looking for to truly showcase his talent.
“I’ve been pretty well-documented that I think he’s one of the most improved players in our program over the years,” Muschamp said on Sunday during Florida’s media day.
Also a victim of circumstance in 2013 was redshirt senior Andre Debose, who tore his ACL in the offseason and did not play a single game. The coaching staff lauded Debose as making the most progress of anyone on the Gators last offseason, but he never got the chance to show it.
Entering his sixth year, Debose should be able to display his playmaking ability in a variety of ways.
“The guy is the leading kickoff returner in UF history,” Muschamp said. “He’s a guy that, I think, offensively, this will probably fit him a little better. He’ll play on the outside; he’s also going to play in the slot some [where we can] utilize him with some of the speed sweeps and things.”
Florida expects sophomore Demarcus Robinson, one of the most hyped freshmen entering the 2013 campaign, to live up to his billing. Robinson had an immature mindset as a rookie, by all accounts, and not only struggled to pick up the offense but was also lacking the respect of his coaches and teammates for his inability to stay within the outlined team rules.
Muschamp said Sunday that Robinson “has really matured,” “had a very good spring” and appears to be ready to take the next step in his development as a football player. Redshirt junior quarterback Jeff Driskel, who will be charged with slinging the ball to Robinson and worked with him extensively in the offseason, was in agreement.
“He’s a specimen. He’s going to be a guy who makes plays. He can stretch the field, make catches in traffic. I think the biggest difference in Demarucs from this year to last year is his maturity level. Some guys come out of high school and don’t mature as quickly. I think he’s really, really matured a lot over the 6-7 months or so. I’m happy to be around him, and I’m happy to work with him,” he said.
It was 6-foot-4 wideout Ahmad Fulwod, not Robinson, who wound up making the greatest impact during his freshman campaign. Hauling in 17 of his 17 receptions over the final seven games of the season, Fulwood was a big target for UF’s backup signal callers and should now be one of the first players Driskel looks to when throwing the ball down the field.
According to Muschamp, Fulwood has only gotten better in the offseason.
“He’s a match-up issue because of length. But he’s gotten stronger, much more crisp in his route-running and snapping routes off. He catches the ball extremely well,” he said. “But because of his length, he’s a guy – as a defensive coach when you line up – you’re a little leery of lining up a smaller corner against him because he does have exceptional ball skills and he catches the ball at the highest point very well. Because of his length, he presents some issues.”
The Gators will also look to a couple of veterans (juniors Latroy Pittman, Raphael Andres), speedsters (sophomore Chris Thompson, redshirt freshman Alvin Bailey) and youngsters (freshmen Ryan Sousa, C.J. Worton) to make an impact, and redshirt junior Valdez Showers is always waiting in the wings to run some plays out of the slot.
Now that Florida appears to have the weapons – and a wide variety of them at that – all that remains is to see whether the Gators can get them working in concert with Driskel in Roper’s brand new shotgun, up-tempo system.
“The great thing is we’ve got a lot of competition at the position, so it’s going to make those guys work harder.” Muschamp said. “I think they’ve done a great job with Jeff and our quarterbacks this summer, so I’m excited to see those guys go out and compete. But I certainly think we’ve improved ourselves at that position.”
Florida could certainly go one more year without having a receiver drafted, though Dunbar and Debose appear to be in their best position yet to not only help the Gators succeed but also further their respective careers.
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