It may have taken six years and 32 games, but on Saturday at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville, Florida, Florida Gators redshirt senior Andre Debose finally broke out.
Sure, Debose entered Saturday’s game tied for the Southeastern Conference record (while simultaneously holding the school record) in kickoffs returned for touchdowns with four. And yes, back on Nov. 19, 2011, Debose did have 151 receiving yards and two touchdowns in a one game against FCS opponent Furman.
However, to this point, Debose has achieved his modest success at Florida strictly through his speed. Saturday, he also displayed his burst, change-of-direction skills, elusiveness and field vision – and he did it on more than one occasion.
With six minutes left in the first quarter, after losing three years on his initial punt return earlier in the afternoon, Debose caught the ball at the Gators’ 16, weaved his way through three would-be tacklers and traveled 29 yards up the right sideline.
At the end of Eastern Michigan’s very next possession, Debose showcased his talents again. He caught a punt at Florida’s 11, split the gunners and moved out to the 44-yard line…before the entire thing got negated due to offsetting penalties.
Debose was not one of the 11 wide receivers, running backs and tight ends to haul in a reception for the Gators on Saturday, but redshirt junior quarterback Jeff Driskel did look for him on three occasions.
The first, a would-be 32-yard touchdown, was overthrown by Driskel, but Debose desired so badly to make the play that he not only dove for the ball out the back of the end zone, he threw himself head-first into the bushes and iron gate surrounding the field.
On a day where Debose’s return from ACL surgery could have otherwise been forgotten, he made it a point to make sure he was remembered.
He averaged 24.3 yards on four registered punt returns and managed to cap his day with one of the most impressive plays seen in The Swamp in years.
Corralling the ball at UF’s 40-yard line, Debose looked like he was about to be swallowed up by EMU defenders. Instead, he took a step and juked back to avoid a tackle, juked left to avoid another, ran to the opposite side of the field, juked right to make two defenders fall down, executed a spin move into the middle of the field and took off diagonally toward the right end zone hash for a 55-yard return that ended at Eastern Michigan’s five-yard line before he could leap into the end zone.
“I could be honest. I ran out of gas, man,” said Debose, who likely traveled more than 100 yards overall on the return. “I saw the goal line right there and I [was telling myself] to jump and I tried to jump and nothing happened. I just ran out of gas a little bit, man.”
Unfortunately for Florida, celebrating Debose’s return cost the team its excellent field position. The Gators were called for a sideline infraction, pushing the ball back to the Eagles’ 20, though UF did punch it into the end zone three plays later.
“It was a great run. I would like to say it reminded me of me, but I never had one. I would’ve torn four ACLs before any of that would’ve ever happened,” joked Muschamp. “The guy, he’s an electric guy with the ball in his hands. He’s got tremendous speed. [We are] trying to get him in space as much as possible. …
“With that run, I don’t blame our guys for getting excited about it. It was certainly an excitable play and it’s something we’re looking forward to Andre giving our football team this year. Changing field position, scoring points, there’s a reason why I think it’s one more kickoff return he’ll be the leader in SEC history. We plan on making that happen.”
No, Debose did not reach pay dirt on Saturday, nor did he have the opportunity to do anything spectacular on offense. But he didn’t have to – that’s not what Florida needed.
He has also put more meaningful plays on film throughout his career, kickoff return touchdowns that have come just when the Gators have needed them the most.
But has Debose ever had one single play that showcased all the skills that got fans so excited about his arrival six years ago, the skill set that Urban Meyer hoped he could use to mitigate the loss of Percy Harvin when he left for the NFL?
That play came on Saturday…and that was Debose post-knee biceps femoris graft surgery (2009), post-ACL surgery (2013). It was a Debose who started his career in the locker room with Tim Tebow and has gone through six position coaches and four coordinators during his collegiate career.
“I’ve been here forever, man,” he acknowledged with a laugh.
Debose was also not shy about praising the new offensive system under coordinator Kurt Roper, one which should finally allow him to reach his full potential if all goes according to plan.
“This is the most fun that I’ve seen everybody have in the last six years, man. Just our offense…we know we’re good. You can see we’re putting up 65 points. I haven’t seen that since I’ve been here. It’s just amazing, man. I’m very excited about this season,” he added.
The change in confidence is noticeable.
One more kickoff return touchdown will give Debose his own place in SEC history in that category – last name ever, first name greatest – but a full season playing for Florida like he did on Saturday would mean much more.
It could result in Debose becoming the potential game-breaker and difference-maker he was expected to be in 2009, and 2010, and 2011, and 2012, and 2013.
Surrounded by talented runners in sophomore Kelvin Taylor and junior Matt Jones, a fellow veteran wideout in redshirt senior Quinton Dunbar and some young guns at the position in sophomores Ahmad Fulwood and Demarcus Robinson, it would be easy to forget about Debose when discussing the Gators’ 2014 playmakers.
If he builds on the momentum from Saturday, Debose will be able to make damn sure the last of his six years at UF is remembered forever.