University of Florida

With the Gators settled at quarterback, other position battles begin to bubble

Florida wide receiver Antonio Callaway runs for a 66-yard touchdown after catching a pass in front of Georgia safety Johnathan Abram (25) during a game on Oct. 31, 2015, in Jacksonville. Callaway is the leading returning receiver for the Gators this season.
Florida wide receiver Antonio Callaway runs for a 66-yard touchdown after catching a pass in front of Georgia safety Johnathan Abram (25) during a game on Oct. 31, 2015, in Jacksonville. Callaway is the leading returning receiver for the Gators this season. AP

Jim McElwain has his starting quarterback in Luke Del Rio.

Most of the other spots in UF’s starting lineup, however, are still up for grabs.

With less than two weeks until the 25th-ranked Gators open their season against UMass, McElwain has put the onus on himself to start separating the top players from the rest of the pack.

Two groups in particular stand out: wide receiver and defensive line.

“Really more than anything, [I’m] kind of looking this week for competition at some of the spots as we start to look to kind of solidify some playing time in certain rotations at some other positions,” McElwain said.

Sophomore Antonio Callaway and Brandon Powell are the top returning receivers from last season. Callaway paced the Gators in receiving yards (678) and the Southeastern Conference in yards per catch (19.37). Powell was productive out of the slot before being sidelined with a foot injury. He finished third on the team with 390 receiving yards and three touchdowns.

The rest of the returning receivers from last season had just 15 combined catches, 178 yards and two touchdowns.

McElwain has pointed to junior C.J. Worton and junior college transfer Dre Massey as potential answers to the depth at the position.

Worton, a former standout at South Dade High, had a strong spring camp before being sidelined with a foot injury last month. He’s expected to return to practice later this week, McElwain said.

Massey — who came to UF via Holmes Community College in Mississippi — has a combination of speed and soft hands that McElwain thinks will thrive in his system.

McElwain has praised Massey’s versatility since fall camp and said having players such as him and Powell on the field at the same time allow for him to get creative with his game plans.

“The art of deception in having those guys being able to do so many different things — I think anytime you can do that it really helps,” McElwain said. “To get both those guys on the field at the same time is going to be important for us.”

Although McElwain is tapping into inexperienced players for depth at receiver, the defensive line is focused more on building off a solid 2015 season (tied for fifth nationally in sacks; 11th in tackles for loss) and replace its top pass rushers in Jon Bullard and Alex McCalister.

Redshirt senior Bryan Cox Jr. and redshirt junior Caleb Brantley are virtual locks to be opening-weekend starters. The two started 12 and 10 games, respectively, in 2015 and combined for 17 tackles for loss.

The rest of the group — highlighted by senior Joey Ivie, redshirt junior Jordan Sherit, sophomores CeCe Jefferson and Keivonnis Davis, and freshman Antonneous Clayton — has potential to shine, but exactly how much playing time each will get has yet to be determined.

Jefferson has the best chance to make an immediate impact out of the group. A freshman All-SEC selection last year, Jefferson recorded  8 1/2 tackles for loss and 3 1/2 sacks despite playing mostly as a backup.

“It’s expected from the older guys to be dominant,” Jefferson said, “but the way these younger guys came in and just picked up on things so fast, the way they just fly around and play without thinking — that’s impressive too because we need everybody.”

  Comments