The Florida Gators have playmakers again, now they just have to be utilized

By Adam Silverstein
August 30, 2017
The Florida Gators have playmakers again, now they just have to be utilized
Football

Image Credit: Courtney Culbreath/UAA

It’s not that the Florida Gators have been completely void of offensive talent over the last few seasons, but there is no question they have not been as loaded with game-changing playmakers as they were when Urban Meyer was running things in Gainesville, Florida.

And while head coach Jim McElwain has taken some lumps for his team’s recruiting since he arrived in town, one thing he has most certainly succeeded in doing is bringing in dynamic players capable of gaining chunk yardage and scoring touchdowns.

Junior wide receiver Antonio Callway is chief among those players. It is well known by now that Callaway was an underrated three-star prospect coming out of high school who made an instant impact as a true freshman. But for all his successes on the field as a receiver and returner, Callaway has been a complete distraction off it — to the point that he’s suspended for Florida’s season opener against the Michigan Wolverines.

Senior WR Brandon Powell, a converted rusher and Will Muschamp recruit, has seen injuries derail his ability to take significant snaps and make a major impact. Similarly, redshirt junior WR Dre Massey, a junior college transfer who joined the program in 2016, was supposed to be an instant impact playmaker … until he tore his ACL on his lone play of the season when he returned a kickoff last September.

McElwain’s recruitment of former JUCO running back Mark Thompson appears to have been a bust, though the redshirt senior is still involved. Florida now has a bell-cow back in junior RB Jordan Scarlett, and sophomore Lamical Perine flashed when given the opportunity a year ago.

Following the publication of this story, Scarlett was ruled out for the Michigan game.

A bevy of young receivers are led by sophomore Tyrie Cleveland, who made some notable catches as a true freshman and boasts an incredibly high ceiling. Sophomores Josh Hammond and Freddie Swain combined for just 22 receptions a year ago but offer reliable targets out wide with Hammond starting and Swain expected to get a lot more attention.

“He’s a new guy,” said McElwain of Swain. “… He played injured, obviously. … He’s one of those guys who is kind of a model of what you do to get yourself back. He’s added some weight, which in turn has really helped him, even with his speed, so both he — and I’d be remiss in not saying Josh Hammond — both those guys have really grown up.”

Joining them are redshirt freshman Rick Wells and true freshman Daquon Green, who is listed in the two-deep depth chart with Callaway out for Saturday’s game after impressing the coaches this fall.

“We have guys that do different things well. That’s going to be the whole key is putting these guys in the best position for what they do well, and obviously there’s only one ball,” explained offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier in regard to his wideouts. “We’ve talked about playing unselfish as a group, and that group is exciting. We’ve got some guys that can turn the field over fast and really looking forward to watching how they fit in as pieces into the packages that we’re using.”

Aside from the Gators’ veteran tight ends, who have flashed but not yet been used enough to evaluate their consistency, the lone unmentioned player is freshman athlete Kadarius Toney. The three-star prospect out of Alabama is expected to join Massey in playing all over the field in 2017, and Nussmeier appears to be salivating at the concept of having him in the fold.

“When the ball is in his hand, he’s electric. I don’t know if there’s any real comparison — maybe a little bit similar to a Blake Sims that we had at Alabama and the things that he can do — but Kadarius is a special kid and a great, great competitor,” Nussmeier said recently. “He’s still learning everything. I think with any young player … you have to be careful not to put too much on him at one point in time, but as you saw in the spring, you caught a little glimpse of the things he can do with the ball in his hands. He’s special.”

Even McElwain, who often holds back praise — particularly for young players — cannot help but express his excitement over the potential for what Toney can do with his touches.

“Every day he gets better. Here’s the amazing thing: You look the production piece, just the sheer production piece,” he said. “… When you look at our third down and red area, this guy has showed up in the production piece of it. He’s got natural hands. He’s got some make-you-miss ability.”

A couple days later, McElwain added: “Kadarius Toney … this guy is something. He needs to touch it. It’s pretty cool to see him out there.”

Both Massey and Swain are back to 100 percent, which is great news for Florida considering its down Callaway and freshman WR James Robinson for Saturday. Fans should expect to see Toney and Massey’s speed on display both on special teams and on offense, where they will work out of the slot, take carries out of the backfield and perhaps even line up behind center on occasion.

Hammond will start out wide opposite Cleveland, but Swain will likely get his share of chances both as the X receiver and No. 4 option when the Gators want to spread the field.

It is this group of players that McElwain and Nussmeier will count on ensure Florida does not come up short on offense like it has the first two seasons of this regime. The coaches were able to use the Gators’ lack of offensive line depth and thin quarterback room as a crutch for a while, but there are no more legitimate excuses in Year 3. It’s time to put up or shut up for guys that were hired to fix the offensive slide the program took under Muschamp.

“It certainly is one of the things, as we all know, that I was brought here to do, and it hasn’t been done yet, and yet, it’s been obviously something that is continually evolving as we get to the competition phase and the roster balance on that side of the ball,” McElwain said at the start of fall camp.

“With that being said, I was also instructed when I took this job to figure out how to win, and I guess maybe we’ve won a couple [SEC East titles] and nobody really thought we would, and yet … whatever hand you’re given, you figure out how to play that hand. Sometimes you’ve got to bluff now, right? But at the same time, you’ve got to get a win at the end of the day, and I think our guys have done a pretty decent job of that.”

Nussmeier referred to the last two seasons as the “floor” for offense at UF, noting that it has been set and the focus is now rising above that level of play.

“We’ve had a chance to turn over a couple rooms [with coaches and players], get some guys in there we think we can turn the field over now, and now it’s time to go get it done,” he said.

These are the playmakers who may be able to do just that for Florida, though the team must of course figure out who will be delivering and handing off the ball in order to make it so at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, on Saturday.

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