Florida’s ballyhooed quarterback battle could last until the season opener, but Gators coach Jim McElwain is concerned with catching the football — not just who’s throwing it.
“I don’t know if sometimes the receivers are so shocked the ball’s gotten to them or something, but they react like they’ve never done it before,” McElwain said. “It’s a never-ending issue.”
Junior receiver Demarcus Robinson (810 yards, eight touchdowns) is the only UF receiver to register more than 560 yards in a single season since 2009. His 53 catches last season were more than the rest of the Gators’ returning skill players (wideouts, tight ends and tailbacks) combined (51 receptions).
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The Gators are on their seventh wide receivers coach in as many years, including two assistants, Bush Hamden in 2012 and Chris Leak in 2014, who were promoted from graduate assistant spots.
The turnstile stopped with Kerry Dixon this offseason, but the young, up-and-coming assistant from FIU has zero experience coaching the position, and the unit’s troubles have persisted in training camp.
“Consistency and performance is really what it’s all about,” McElwain said.
“These guys have the talent to do it. You talk about believing in yourself. Confidence. Confidence is something that’s gained by believing in through knowledge of knowing what to do. Actually, part of it is a responsibility to prepare to handle the details of the position, whatever it is. I don’t know that they’ve been asked to do that consistently. We have to keep honing in on that. We’ve got some guys there who can play, no doubt.”
How many remains the question, though.
The Gators are confident that they can rely on Robinson, an explosive playmaker, and sophomore jitterbug Brandon Powell, a potential X-factor who recorded 15 catches for 147 yards and a score as a freshman.
After that? The rest of the unit is an unknown cadre of former blue-chippers who have failed to develop. McElwain has openly attempted to motivate enigmatic junior Ahmad Fulwood, Chris Thompson and others.
Following Friday’s second preseason scrimmage, McElwain lamented the group’s “Achilles heel.”
“Just too many drops,” he said. “It just can’t happen.”
Ideally, the Gators will play six to eight receivers this fall — if they can find that many.
Sophomore C.J. Worton emerged as a nice option opposite Robinson before missing two weeks of camp with a leg injury. The former South Dade standout recently returned to practice and has every opportunity to win a spot in the rotation.
McElwain has also been impressed with freshman Antonio Callaway, a former star at Miami Booker T. Washington.
“Antonio is doing a great job,” McElwain said. “He’s a guy who has come in and picked it up quickly. Still makes some rookie mistakes, like a lot of guys do, but like I’ve told him, he’s not a rookie anymore. He’s been through camp now.
“He’s an example of a guy who came in with a mind-set that, ‘You know what? I’m going to go out and be good.’ And yet, we need to continue that mind-set with some of the other guys who are in that room.”
McElwain, a detail-obsessive coach, knows what he’s doing developing wideouts.
He force-fed the ball to Julio Jones at Alabama, and Rashard Higgins led the nation with 1,750 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns at Colorado State last season.
UF’s receivers say the new offense’s route tree is twice as big as seasons past, but more opportunity begets more responsibility, especially from a coach who has piloted some prolific passing attacks.
“Pitching and catching is the No.1 thing we’ve got to consistently get better at,” McElwain said. “And I know it will.”