Antonio Callaway never expected the Florida Gators would be still be struggling.
In the span of a week, the No. 22 Gators (6-2, 4-2 Southeastern Conference) went from a virtual shoo-in to win the SEC East to a team looking for more answers than ever on offense with three regular-season games to play.
The inconsistencies became evident in Florida’s three-game losing streak to end last season and have played a decisive role in the team’s two losses this year, most recently a 31-10 loss to Arkansas that bumped the Gators out of the most recent College Football Playoff rankings.
“That wasn’t part of the plans,” said Callaway, a former standout at Miami’s Booker T. Washington.
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That statement also applied directly to Callaway, who has been striving for consistency on the field since rejoining the team after being cleared at a Title IX hearing in August of a sexual assault accusation during the offseason.
The receiver said his coaches and teammates supported and told him to remain optimistic during his suspension that spanned from the spring semester until the ensuing hearing.
“Keep working and don’t give up,” Callaway said the coaches told him. “Keep working.”
When he was cleared to return to the team, Callaway jumped right back into his starting role and has shown flashes of his freshman-year productivity.
In seven games (he missed Florida’s 32-0 win against North Texas with a thigh injury), Callaway leads Florida receivers with 31 catches and 485 yards.
He scored a rushing touchdown on a jet sweep during UF’s 24-10 win against Georgia, making him the first player in UF history to score a touchdown five ways (receiving, rushing, passing, kickoff return, punt return).
He’s recorded seven catches of at least 20 yards -- five of which came from graduate transfer quarterback Austin Appleby, who will start Saturday’s home finale against South Carolina in place of injured starter Luke Del Rio.
But in each of the last four games, the receiver’s play and the offense overall has begun to flatline.
During the month of October, Callaway was held to less than 45 receiving yards every game.
Part of it has to do with the opponents. Florida does not have an established down-field threat other than Callaway, so defenses are honing in on the speedy 5-11 sophomore. In Saturday’s loss to Arkansas, the Razorbacks had a safety help cover Callaway all game. He managed just four catches and 44 yards.
“I haven’t really had a one-on-one all year,” Callaway said, adding that it’s “no fun” when that happens.
Part of it has to do with poor execution of the offense. Callaway said offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier has drawn up a series of plays with the primary focus of getting the ball in Callaway’s hands. They haven’t worked.
“It’s not like we haven’t tried to get it to him,” UF coach Jim McElwain said.
Wide receivers coach Kerry Dixon added: “He’s actually done a good job of developing, understanding the playbook a lot better. He just has to focus on doing his job 100-percent every single time.”
While he’s still making an impact on offense, Callaway’s production as a punt returner has plummeted.
A year after returning two punts for touchdowns and averaging 15.5 yards per return, Callaway has fumbled three punt returns this year and is averaging 3.95 yards each time he tries to break a run.
He went from being the fifth-best in the country to the fifth-worst.
“I’m trying to run without the ball,” Callaway said. “I see a hole and I leave without the ball. It’s always been like one block away, one man away.”
With the Gators still making a push for the SEC East title, Callaway said he individually and the offense as a whole needs to find a way to come together in the final stretch of the season.
“Everybody got to get on one page,” he said. “Everybody ain’t on the same page right now.
“We’re capable of doing it.”