In the lead-up to kickoff against Idaho, I’ll be taking my next few pieces to introduce, highlight, and analyze the groups of players that hold the key between Florida’s return to SEC prominence, or conversely, a banishing to the SEC cellar for 2014.
Wide receivers and Tight Ends
Think back to names like Carlos Alvarez, Lee McGriff, Reidel Anthony, Ike Hillard, Wes Chandler, Chris Doering and many more. All are legends in what helped make the University of Florida “Wide Receiver U” for many years.
But times have been tough recently.
To put it into perspective, and think about this one for a minute, the Gators have not had a receiver (or a tight end) notch 1,000 yards since Taylor Jacobs in 2002. Not Percy Harvin, not Aaron Hernandez, not Riley Cooper – not a one. And, to make matters worse, no Gator has totaled even 600 yards since 2009. With the addition of Kurt Roper and the departure of Joker Phillips, it’s all a big question mark as to if this is the year to break that streak and return to glory.
From the cheap seats in Atlanta, I happen to think this might be the season to inch closer to that prominence.
The cupboard certainly isn’t bare in Gainesville, as it has been in recent years. With rising seniors like Tevin Westbrook, Clay Burton, Hunter Joyer, and Gideon Ajagbe on the TE/FB side, and receivers Quinton Dunbar and Andre Debose (haven’t we said this before?) returning, the team has leadership.
Talented underclassmen Valdez Showers, Demarcus Robinson, Ahmad Fulwood, Chris Thompson, Raphael Andrades, Latroy Pittman, Alvin Bailey, and Marqui Hawkins give Florida depth. And again, folks, these guys have real-time starting and game-playing experience that a great many other players for rival teams do not. In a year of marked transition for so many programs in the SEC, the Gators stand a great chance of gaining from losing last year due to their players having logged real-time minutes.
I happen to like Fullwood and Robinson to get the nod as starters this season. Fullwood has great play-making abilities in tight coverage. Though it was ultimately a day to forget, his incredible catch against Vanderbilt was a sign of his potential. Robinson looked solid against SEC stud Vernon Hargreaves in spring practice, and could provide a pulse in open space that just didn’t exist last season. Though he’s had some disciplinary issues, all indications are that he has finally matured to the standards of a starting SEC receiver. Robinson is an incredible athlete (as shown in this video from his high school years), and if his game comes together, could be Florida’s first real playmaker since the days of Percy Harvin.
And finally, a name that all Gator fans should know by now (and if they don’t, they most certainly will by season’s end) is Jake McGee. McGee was UVA’s leading receiver last season, bringing down 43 catches for nearly 400 yards (more than any UF receiver in 2012 or 2013) and two touchdowns (more than ALL Gator tight ends COMBINED in 2013). In addition, 26 of those 43 receptions went for a first down – a stat the Gators sorely need after finishing near the bottom of the SEC for first downs.
During his tenure at UVA, McGee played in 36 games over three seasons, caught 71 passes for 769 yards and notched seven touchdowns. He fits perfectly into new Florida offensive coordinator Kurt Roper’s up-tempo style of offense, as there are numerous options for the tight end position – be it from in the slot, the nickel, or down the field. He can also be a mentor to highly touted freshman TE recruit DeAndre Goolsby. McGee has been Gator QB Jeff Driskel’s roommate this summer, which means there is definite potential that they have developed chemistry, and that Florida will have a TE threat for the first time since Jordan Reed departed in 2012.
And then there’s DeBose. If he makes good on the promise he brought with him to Gainesville (and I think he just might), this crew could be in for a HUGE rebound in 2014.
If last year is any guide, having the 1,000 yard receiver isn’t the only key to making the SEC Championship Game. LSU had Jarvis Landry, Vanderbilt had Jordan Matthews, and I saw Texas A&M’s Mike Evans in action at the Chick-Fil-A Bowl. All of these men put up some impressive stats (1,193, 1,477, and 1,394 yards respectively), but guess what: LSU, Vandy, and Texas A&M sat and watched Auburn and Missouri (each with no player over 1,000 yards receiving) duke it out in Atlanta.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: The Gators do not need to replicate their offensive successes of the 90s and 00s to be successful; they just need competent receivers and good hands downfield – and must score between 25-35 each game. With the defense doing its job, and the offense at least having a pulse (anything is better than last year), the Gators can get back to bowl contention, and even threaten front-runners Georgia and South Carolina in the SEC East race.