Losing wide receiver Antonio Callaway would have been a devastating blow to the Florida offense a year ago.
It’s a blow now, for sure, but far from a knockout punch.
At least that’s coach Jim McElwain and the players’ take on the offense’s Callaway-less situation at wide receiver heading into the opener against Michigan on Sept. 2.
They say the Gators have enough players and playmakers at receiver now to compensate for the loss of their biggest playmaker from the past two seasons.
“We have a lot of playmakers everywhere,” senior slot receiver Brandon Powell said Tuesday. “That’s just one player. Everybody in that (wide receiver) room, they’re here for a reason. Everybody’s a playmaker in that room.
“Like (Coach Mac) told y’all. Just next man up. Everybody’s been working hard this whole summer. I mean, it’s nothing new. (Callaway) missed some of the summer last year. At the end of the day, everyone’s here for a reason.”
One of those playmakers is Powell, who is having perhaps his best preseason camp. He had a long touchdown reception from redshirt freshman quarterback Feleipe Franks in Friday’s scrimmage and has consistently made plays in practice.
He’s not alone.
Tyrie Cleveland, Josh Hammond and Freddie Swain have also been producing. And then there are the two potential big-time playmakers who are flying under the radar — Dre Massey because he missed last season with a knee injury and Kadarius Toney because the true freshman just recently moved to slot receiver from quarterback.
Add it all up, and the Gators say they have the necessary numbers (and talent) to overcome the loss of the suspended Callaway.
“The only evidence I have is based on what I’ve seen in those practices and what we’ve done moving forward,” McElwain said. “There’s been really good production. I think the cross-train piece. Guess what, we found some pieces that fit together pretty good. There will be some personnel groupings as we develop plans for certain guys in certain spots where maybe they hadn’t been before. That’s kind of one of the things when you talk about next man up. There are some guys that are kind of hungry. It’s been great to see.”
Over the past two years, Callaway wasn’t only Florida’s biggest offensive playmaker, some might argue he’s been the only one. But it’s been a different situation in this preseason camp, according to coaches and players.
Before he was suspended, Callaway was sharing the big-play spotlight with multiple receivers.
“Tyrie Cleveland. Next man up. Freddie Swain, Josh Hammond,” junior offensive tackle Martez Ivey said. “Our receiver corps is deep. It’s a next-man-up mentality and I got all the trust in them that they’re going to make stuff happen on offense.”
The two former quarterbacks in the group — Massey and Toney — very well could end up being the biggest playmakers of all.
Massey, a junior college transfer and former high school QB, was slated to play a significant role in UF’s passing game last season. But that plan had to be scrapped when he injured his knee on the opening kickoff in the first game of the season.
He’s back at full speed now and making some of the same plays he was making in last year’s camp that drew the attention of McElwain and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier.
“It’s great,” Hammond said. “Dre is a really good player. Dre comes into work every day. He practices really hard. So having Dre definitely adds a lot of versatility to our offense, and we’re just excited to have him back.”
The Gators seem thrilled about the possibilities that Toney might bring to the offense. He is a dual-threat quarterback who flashed his big-play potential in the spring game and has since been moved to slot receiver. He’s also been lining up in other spots in an attempt to put the ball in his hands.
Even when Callaway was in camp, Toney may have been the team leader in big plays on the practice field.
“Oh, I love him. He’s a playmaker,” Powell said. “He can make people miss. I keep asking him, ‘How do you make cuts like that?’ It’s crazy the things he can do. He’s a good athlete.
“In one practice, he caught a ball across the middle and I don’t know how, he stopped on a dime like that and made two people miss. And it’s like, ‘Man how the hell did you do that?’ He’s a good player.”
Ivey said Toney is now running with the No. 1 offense in practice.
“He’s doing a great job,” Ivey said. “He’s a receiver who can catch the ball and is also very elusive. There are just so many plays that he’s made since he’s been here.
“He’s confident. He’s calm and quiet, but he’s definitely confident. I mean, I’d be confident too if I was him.”
Ivey said Toney has the potential to be an X-factor in the offense.
“I believe so,” he said. “People really have no idea who he is. They just might be unaware of him and then all of a sudden he’s a breakout player.”
Maybe just like Callaway was two years ago, before all his trouble started.
Contact Robbie Andreu at 352-374-5022 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Also check out Andreu’s blog at Gatorsports.com.