Florida Football: Breaking Down Key Battles for Starting WR Spots
Florida's passing game was one of the worst in college football last season. The Gators only averaged a little over 146 passing yards per game, good enough for 118th in the nation. One of the reasons for this was the development of first-year starting quarterback Jeff Driskel. Another major factor, however, was a lack of superior athletes at the wide receiver position.
It is becoming a familiar story in Gainesville. The team has not had a dependable go-to receiver since Riley Cooper. Tight end Jordan Reed actually led Florida in receiving yards last season with 559. Furthermore, only one other Gator was able to come within half of Reed's total of 45 receptions.
Now that Frankie Hammond and Omarius Hines are also out of the picture, the race to earn a starting nod at wide receiver for 2013 is wide open. Returning players will be looking to stand out during the spring and summer months. At the same time, a talented crop of freshman talent is arriving to put even more pressure on them.
Here is a breakdown of Florida's wide receivers and where they will fall on the depth chart once August arrives.
The only returning Gator who has shown any sort of consistency as a receiver is Quinton Dunbar. Because of this, he is basically a lock to earn the spot atop Florida's depth chart next season.
Even though he ended the season with only 383 yards, Dunbar clearly made the most plays of all Gator receivers in 2012. This was especially true during Florida's final four games, as he broke out to the tune of 16 receptions for 156 yards during that span. His four touchdowns were also good enough for the team lead.
The fact that Dunbar played a more active offensive role as the season wore on is a good sign for the Gators. It shows both a budding chemistry between him and quarterback Jeff Driskel and a better understanding of Brent Pease's offensive scheme.
Dunbar is not the type of receiver who can completely shift the momentum of a game with a single huge play. However, he can make a grab to keep the chains moving, and his four touchdowns are proof he can get open in the red zone.
Dunbar is the most productive true wide receiver the Gators have on their roster. There should be no reason why he will not start on opening day next season.
One could make a valid argument that Andre Debose has been the most disappointing Gator since he first took the field as a freshman. He may be extremely valuable as a kick returner, but he has done little-to-nothing for Florida's offense. Quite frankly, I don't expect that to change this season.
After 2011, Debose was a prime candidate for a breakout season. He averaged 27 yards per reception that year, thanks to a handful of spectacular plays. The most memorable was a 65-yard bomb from John Brantley to open the game against SEC powerhouse Alabama. That one play was a perfect example of how his raw speed could make him a deadly vertical threat.
Instead, Debose sped his way to a measly 15 receiving yards last season.
There is no pretty way to describe his complete lack of production. His 2012 season was a flat-out train wreck from an offensive standpoint. There were times when I even forgot that Debose is technically a wide receiver because he was never on the field to catch passes.
It is clear that Debose is in Will Muschamp's doghouse and is not willing to learn the nuances of Florida's offense. If he could ever buckle down and put forth full effort, Debose could be an absolute star. Unfortunately, there is no scenario in which I see that happening next season.
Another Gator upperclassman who has not been a valuable weapon on offense is Solomon Patton. Primarily used for end-arounds and other gadget plays, Patton is not going to put up stellar numbers next season.
Patton is so effective on these unusual plays because he is extremely fast. Once at full speed, it takes a good angle to run him down and tackle him.
In terms of catching the ball, however, Patton is not of much use. He is much too small to be repeatedly sent out against SEC corners and safeties to catch passes. As a result, he only has a total of eight receptions to his credit.
Patton will break a big gain here and there throughout the season. However, he is not going to be someone the Gators will rely on throughout each game.
Perhaps, the real wild card for the Gators next season is Latroy Pittman. He only caught two passes as a freshman last season, but he is skilled enough to develop into a productive receiver.
According to ESPN GatorNation's Michael DiRocco, Pittman was in the good graces of the Florida coaching staff as an early enrollee. However, he was not able to capitalize on it. Now that he has had a year to study the offense and learn from his teammates, Pittman could break out this season.
Right now, the Gators could use anyone who is able to get open downfield. Pittman is still a bit of a project, but he is capable of sneaking his way into a starting role next season.
Raphael Andrades is another 2012 commit fighting for playing time next season. After catching only two passes during his freshman campaign, however, Andrades should not be expected to make many plays next season.
As his bio on Gatorzone.com points out, Andrades was only ranked as a 3-star recruit coming out of high school by various experts. Even though he is certainly skilled, nothing about Andrades really stands out. He is not exceptionally big or fast, and he was primarily used as a blocker last season.
Andrades should improve his numbers during his sophomore season. However, he will not be one of the opening-day starters for the Gators.
The New Recruits
Although none of the current Gator receivers are high-profile names, a talented group of freshmen is on the way that could change that in the coming years. With four ESPN 300 commits at wide receiver, a star is likely to emerge from this class.
At the top of the list is Demarcus Robinson. ESPN's Michael DiRocco believes that Robinson could be the team's most talented receiver other than Andre Debose. However, he is also quick to point out that Robinson is only a freshman and needs to learn the system. Still, those words are very encouraging.
Alvin Bailey, Ahmad Fulwood and Marqui Hawkins are the other three big names. Bailey is seemingly the most talented of the group. He has speed, versatility and good ball skills.
However, he is not ready to immediately compete for a starting job. Likewise, Fulwood and Hawkins might catch a pass every once in a while. However, they are not ready to immediately make a huge impact.
Robinson is the only freshman who has any chance of cracking the starting lineup, and he will likely need a little luck. In either case, he should be a stud for the Gators down the road.
The Final Verdict
Part of the Gator wide receiver picture is pretty clear. The rest of it, however, remains somewhat muddy.
As things stand now, Quinton Dunbar has one of the two primary receiver spots locked up. He was second on the team in receiving last season, and he has the most career catches of any receiver on the roster by a wide margin.
If nothing else, he has developed the most chemistry with Jeff Driskel and is the one most familiar with the playbook. He will be starting against Toledo.
As for the other spot, the race is wide-open. Judging by pure talent, it should go to Debose. However, Debose has had so many issues with his work ethic and reputation among the coaching staff that I just do not see him earning the spot.
That leaves Latroy Pittman and freshman Demarcus Robinson as the other two candidates. I think it is a good possibility that they will split the playing time for much of the season, especially after Robinson has had a few weeks to get acclimated.
Right now, however, I give a slight edge to Pittman. He has one year of experience under his belt, and I think that is the most important thing at the present.
Raphael Andrades and Solomon Patton should remain nothing more than specialty players used on five wide sets or other special formations. Hybrid playmaker Trey Burton should get many more looks than either of them.
In terms of primary targets, however, Dunbar and Pittman are my two to watch.