As Brandon Powell blazed into the end zone during Friday’s scrimmage for a 40-yard touchdown, Jim McElwain smiled. This, he thought, is the future.
“I thought Brandon Powell really showed up,” he said of the senior wide out’s performance in fall camp. And it wasn’t just Powell.
With Antonio Callaway suspended from practice and from Florida’s season opener against Michigan, the Gators will have to rely on other playmaking options. But even with his leading receiver from the past two seasons unavailable, McElwain is optimistic. The recruiting rankings support his confidence.
The Gators have stockpiled weapons at the receiver position, and McElwain thinks it could be one of the team’s strongest units in 2017 — even without Callaway.
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That starts with sophomore Tyrie Cleveland, who will likely start for the Gators on the outside. A season ago, he led the team’s receivers in yards per catch with 21.29, and that was after missing significant practice time with a hamstring injury. Left tackle Martez Ivey named him as a potential breakout star, and he was rated as the second-best pass catcher in the 2016 recruiting class by the 247Sports Composite.
Cleveland himself is also expecting an uptick in production after he caught two touchdown passes on 298 yards last season.
“I’m not thinking that much,” he said, “so I’m just playing my game.”
In the slot, the Gators could turn to either Dre Massey, Powell or Kadarius Toney.
Massey was hyped up by McElwain as someone who could do it all ahead of last season after the junior college transfer enrolled at Florida. Then he returned the season’s opening kickoff and boom: Torn ACL. He said he’s at 100 percent now, though, and he’s looked like it in practice.
Powell, meanwhile, caught McElwain’s attention in the scrimmage for his long touchdown catch, but he’s coming off a down year. After hauling in three touchdowns on 390 yards as a sophomore, he dipped slightly to 387 yards and two touchdowns as a junior. The former Deerfield Beach star is hoping to smash those marks this season.
Then there’s Toney.
A quarterback in high school, he was listed as a three-star athlete coming out of high school in Alabama. He enrolled early at Florida, electrified under center in Florida’s spring game (65 yards on four carries and a passing touchdown) and now, McElwain is basically guaranteeing he’ll see the field. He’s worked at receiver in practice, and his teammates have raved.
“He caught a ball across the middle and I don’t know how he stopped on the dime like that,” Powell said, “but he made two people miss. And it’s like, man how the hell did you do that.”
Added McElwain: “This guy is something. He needs to touch it. It’s pretty cool to see him out there.”
To take Callaway’s place on the outside, Florida will likely turn to one of two sophomores: Josh Hammond and Freddie Swain.
Hammond was an Under Armour All-American from Hallandale and was productive in his first season, notching 12.64 yards per catch. Swain was ranked a four-star recruit and the 25th-best receiver in the country a season ago and managed two touchdowns on eight catches as a freshman.
That leaves redshirt freshman Rick Wells and true freshmen James Robinson and Daquon Green. Wells redshirted last season and could be a contributor on special teams. And while no one has said Robinson — UF’s top offensive recruit in 2017 — and Green — a four-star Under Armour All-American — won’t play, the comments from McElwain and players have been the same: They have a lot to learn, but they’re talented.
Together, defensive tackle Khairi Clark said that’s plenty to make up for Callaway.
“We have great receivers in general,” Clark said. “It was a huge loss for us losing [Callaway], but at the same time, we do have receivers that can make a bunch of plays and can handle that business out there.”