It’s fair to say senior wide receiver Solomon Patton was an afterthought for the vast majority of his career with the Florida Gators.
As Florida struggled to find playmaking wideouts in each of his first three years with the program, Patton (5-foot-9, 177 pounds) was viewed as not much more than speedy guy who could play a role on special teams and occasionally be used as a gadget player.
And he did all of those things quite well. In 2010, Patton appeared in 10 games on special teams. He returned some kicks, brought back a blocked punt for a touchdown against Vanderbilt and blocked a punt of his own in the bowl game against Penn State. In 2011’s season opener against Florida Atlantic, Patton blocked another punt.
Then in 2012, head coach Will Muschamp and then-new offensive coordinator Brent Pease handed him a new task – running jet sweeps on offense. Patton succeeded there as well, taking 14 for a total of 140 yards (with a long gain of 54) before breaking his arm against Georgia and missing the remainder of the season.
Through three seasons, Patton had registered just eight receptions for 79 total yards with a long gain of 17. The coaching staff, and Patton himself, decided it was time for a change in his final collegiate season.
Muschamp challenged Patton to become more than just a “jet sweep guy.” He wanted him to improve his route running and become a complete receiver, someone the Gators could count on to make vertical plays rather than just horizontal ones.
The first sign of his hard work paying off was the second week of the season against Miami when Patton grabbed a career-high six receptions for a career-high 118 yards and the first receiving touchdown of his career. He gained more receiving yards that game than in his previous three seasons combined.
Three more catches for 73 yards and a score against Tennessee took away some doubts about his Miami performance being a fluke. What he did Saturday erased those doubts completely.
With halftime approaching, redshirt junior quarterback Tyler Murphy found Patton with a quick strike on a curl route on 3rd-and-12 at UF’s 49-yard line. He immediately turned upfield and crossed the goal line in a flash for a 51-yard touchdown, 38 yards of which came after the catch.
“Solomon Patton scoring before half was a textbook of how we would want to do that,” Muschamp said after the game. “He’s a guy that, if he gets a step, it’s a hard time catching him. Our [defensive players] can’t catch him and we can run, our guys on the backend. So when he gets a step on top of you, he’s a hard guy to catch.”
Florida’s next possession, the first of the second half, ended in a similar but even more impressive manner. Patton caught a seven-yard pass from Murphy on a crossing route, shook off two would-be tacklers and juked a third near the end zone for his second touchdown of the game. He gained 31 yards after the catch on that score.
“Because of the run game, we’ve created a lot of one-on-ones, and he’s a slippery guy. One missed tackle and it can be the distance,” Muschamp explained. “When you’re able to have guys like that, that are able to make those sort of plays, it changes your thought process as a defensive coordinator.”
Patton said it was a “great feeling” to have a career game on the Gators’ first night game in two seasons. He credited Muschamp for pushing him and wide receivers coach Joker Phillips for teaching him how to be a complete player.
“I think I definitely came a long way. I still got a lot of work [to do]. That comes from the meeting rooms and just learning from Coach Joker every single day,” he said. “The offseason had a lot to do with [my improvement], just taking the things I learned inside of the film room, taking it over to the practice field and the games.”
Muschamp witnessed that development first hand.
“When we got in fall camp, I saw it. This guy was a refined route runner,” he said. “You got to credit the young man and his work ethic. He’s having a special year. … He’s catching the ball extremely well. I can’t say enough about him. He’s a great young man. He’s fun to be around. He’s fun to coach. He’s a guy that just enjoys being a Florida Gator, and he’s a great kid.”
Patton said his marked improvement coming one season after he started to contribute on offense but suffered an untimely broken arm makes his progress even sweeter.
Murphy is just happy he has a receiver that can help make him and Florida’s offense look so explosive.
“I’m happy he’s on our team and not the other team,” the quarterback said with a smile. “Even though he’s small, he’s so quick and hard to tackle, and he [has] good hands, and he just knows how to find the open spot. It’s tough for guys to tackle him, so we’re just going to continue to find ways to get him – and the other guys – the ball and allow them to make plays.”
Patton has never struggled to make impact plays for the Gators, but his ability to do so in the passing game is a blessing for Florida’s offense.
It’s an element the team has been missing since 2009, the last year the Gators had a wideout (Riley Cooper) who caught two touchdowns in a single game – or registered two 100+ yard receiving games in a single season.