GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Normally, it might seem a stretch to suggest that a player is still waiting to break out after delivering a handful of the team’s biggest catches over the last two seasons and leading the roster in receiving last fall.
But that’s the encouraging reality with Florida’s Tyrie Cleveland entering his junior season.
Cleveland led the Gators with 410 receiving yards on 22 catches in 2017, hauling in receptions of 63, 50, 49 and 45 yards. His 18.64 yards per catch ranked fifth in the SEC and 25th nationally.
But injuries and erratic quarterback play combined to limit him for a second straight season. After sustaining a bad sprain to his right ankle as well as dinging a shoulder, he had just 7 catches for 84 yards over October and November.
Anyone who has watched Cleveland through two seasons at Florida knows he has untapped potential, and new coach Dan Mullen’s spread offense — with its emphasis on getting the ball in the hands of its best playmakers — could be the key to unlocking the talented wideout’s full capabilities.
Cleveland has nonetheless delivered the two biggest catches of the last two seasons with his 98-yard touchdown in Florida’s 2016 win at LSU and his 63-yard game-winning TD grab last fall to beat Tennessee.
Florida’s quarterback position will remain unsettled until proven otherwise, but Mullen’s system alone should create more opportunities for all of Florida’s wide receivers.
And there is no shortage of talent at that position. Let’s look at the other guys who also could be in line for increased production next fall.
Kadarius Toney (sophomore)
Speaking of untapped potential, Kadarius Toney made the transition from quarterback to receiver last year and electrified when given the opportunity.
He rushed for a 36-yard touchdown out of the wildcat at Kentucky and also threw a 50-yard pass (to Cleveland) in that same game. He showcased video game-like moves after catching the ball in space and had fans clamoring for more all season long.
But he only finished with 15 catches for 152 yards and 120 rushing yards on 14 carries. Give the former coaching staff credit for identifying the potential of the 3-star prospect from Alabama, but as was a common theme, it didn’t figure out how to maximize him (albeit with only one season together).
A shoulder injury contributed to his limited stats as well, but there was always a sense that the Gators could and should be getting more out of the electric playmaker.
Going back to Mullen’s pledge for the Gators offense moving forward — the emphasis on getting the ball to playmakers in space and letting them do what they do best — Toney is the prime candidate to benefit.
Jacob Copeland (freshman)
The star of National Signing Day for Florida, Jacob Copeland figures to get ample opportunity to contribute immediately as a freshman.
Florida wide receivers coach Billy Gonzales reportedly told Copeland during the recruiting process that the receiver reminded him of former versatile, do-everything Gators star Percy Harvin.
Mullen, meanwhile, said this about Copeland: “ I think he’s a mismatch problem on the field. You can move him around. You can motion him in the backfield, give him the ball, throw him bubble screens or throw him vertically down the field or work over the middle of the field on option routes. You know, he’s a complete player and is a great playmaker with the ball in his hands.”
Van Jefferson (redshirt junior)
Florida is still awaiting clearance from the NCAA on Van Jefferson’s 2018 eligibility after he transferred this offseason from Ole Miss. The hope is that he’ll be able to play right away for the Gators, because of circumstances surrounding former Rebels coach Hugh Freeze’s departure from the program there last summer.
If so, he should plug right in as a high-volume target for Florida. According to his high school coach, Jefferson felt underused at Ole Miss despite totaling 49 catches for 543 yards and 3 touchdowns in 2016 and 42 receptions for 456 yards and 1 TD last fall.
So from his perspective at least, he’s joining the Gators with the expectation of being heavily involved in the offense.
Jefferson worked out of the slot a lot at Ole Miss, but he could be moved around the field as well.
Dre Massey (senior)
Much like Florida’s QB situation, Dre Massey’s potential has moved into the need-to-see-it-to-believe-it stage, but just as with Toney there’s reason to believe the previous coaching staff simply couldn’t find a way to take advantage of his skill set.
A much-hyped JUCO newcomer heading into the 2016 season, Massey tore his right ACL on the opening kickoff and redshirted. He then finished with just 11 catches for 149 yards and a touchdown, with a long reception of 38 yards, last fall.
He remains an intriguing player in Mullen’s offense, but after two preseasons worth of hype, Massey is more of a wild card than the other speedy slot weapons above him on this list.
Still plenty to prove
The rest of this list includes highly-ranked 4-star prospects who still have to prove themselves.
Junior Josh Hammond finished third on the team in receiving last season with 18 catches for 246 yards, but he never had a truly big game and he didn’t score a touchdown. Junior Freddie Swain has looked like a really intriguing wide receiver at times, but he had just 8 catches for 96 yards and 1 TD last fall.
Meanwhile, Daquon Green impressed in preseason camp last summer, but he played briefly in just two games while recording no receptions. And Trevon Grimes is awaiting NCAA clearance on his 2018 eligibility after transferring in from Ohio State. Grimes was ranked the No. 41 overall prospect and No. 6 WR in the Class of 2017, according to the 247Sports composite. He had just 3 catches for 20 yards last season with the Buckeyes.
It also remains to be seen what Florida does with 4-star signee and top-100 overall prospect Justin Watkins, who could end up at receiver or cornerback.
Just as can be said about the Gators running backs, the team looks stacked with depth and upside at wide receiver now.
Florida fans hoping this will finally be the year the offense gets off the ground need only envision some combination of Toney, Copeland and Massey causing fits for defenses on screens, jet sweeps and quick passes in space, while Cleveland provides a punishing over-the-top option, Jefferson brings sure-handed veteran dependability and a couple of the other receivers take a big step forward.
That said, there was also plenty of preseason buzz for the group in recent years, but this is a deeper stable of pass catchers than any group under the previous coaching staff.
And the coaching change is its own reason for optimism that the unit will be better utilized in 2018.
The post Early look at 2018: Florida WRs could be ready to take off under Dan Mullen appeared first on SEC Country.
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