In his true freshman season last fall, Tyrie Cleveland was more sprinter than receiver. His focus wasn’t so much on running routes as it was on simply running, using his great speed to create separation and stretch the field.
As he showed in the final seconds against Tennessee last Saturday, Cleveland can still streak through a secondary to make a big play. But speed is only a part of his game now.
He has evolved into a more complete receiver in the year that he’s been in Gainesville.
“Freshman year, I was just out there running, just playing,” he said. “This year, I feel like I’m more comfortable with the play-calling and the offense. I feel like I just put in the time just to learn the offense with help from my teammates, such as Josh Hammond, Brandon Powell, all those guys. They helped me get to where I’m at now.”
Where he’s at now is he’s Florida’s go-to receiver (not just go-to sprinter). With Antonio Callaway sidelined by suspension, Cleveland has emerged as the receiver the Gators turn to when they need a play in the passing game.
That was evident in the Tennessee game. Before making that 63-yard TD reception on the game’s final play, Cleveland had four other receptions, including one for nine yards on a slant route to convert a critical third down on a fourth-quarter touchdown drive that gave the Gators a 10-point lead.
The final catch is the one everyone is going to remember. What also should be remembered about it is it wasn’t simply a case of Cleveland streaking down the field to get behind the Tennessee secondary. He got there, in a position to make the catch, by running a precise route.
“Tyrie just did a great job getting to his landmark, getting to his spot and making a ball-hawk play,” quarterback Feleipe Franks said.
This is the new Tyrie Cleveland. The more complete version of a wide receiver.
“I think the biggest thing is kind of (he) really invested in getting in shape,” UF coach Jim McElwain said. “No. 2, understanding the position and the playing with some technique where I think he was able to get away with just running fast when he got here. But learning some of the technical details and places you need to be. He’s a fun guy to be around.
“Here’s what I like, he’s learned how to practice. By learning how to practice, then that becomes confidence in games. The biggest thing now is we have to be aware of that position, which now in turn may take half a man off somebody in coverage to allow some other guys to kind of get open as well.”
That’s the idea behind having a go-to receiver. His presence draws the attention of the secondary and can lead to opportunities for others.
“The guy can run,” senior safety Nick Washington said. “He’s making a lot of big plays for us. We’ve had guys go down and he’s kind of stepped up and made those big plays for us.”
Cleveland said he’s put himself in this position by putting in the work in the offseason.
“My main focus was route running, just being able to
get out in my routes crisper, my footwork,” he said. “I took a major part in working on that and trying to keep my body good.”
Cleveland is off to a memorable start to his sophomore season. He leads the Gators in receptions and he’s already produced a highlight moment that he’ll carry with him for the rest of his life.
He’s expecting more big plays to follow.
“I think I’m doing pretty good right now,” Cleveland said. “I’m just trying to stay focused, calm and just let my game take over as the season goes on.”
Cleveland’s game is more than just about speed now. But, in one regard, he’s hoping he gets more opportunities to play fast. When the offense went to a quicker tempo in the UT game, the Gators started clicking.
“I like playing quick tempo,” he said. “I feel like we’ll score more points like that instead of huddling up and taking more time to call a play out. If we get in a hurry-up situation, I feel like the defense won’t be able to stop us.
“I think it stresses them because of our speed and the play-making ability we’ve got on the offense. I don’t think they can handle it.”
Contact Robbie Andreu at 352-374-5022 or email@example.com. Also check out Andreu’s blog at Gatorsports.com.
Who: No. 20 Florida (1-1, 1-0 SEC) vs. Kentucky (3-0, 1-0)
When: 7:30 p.m.
Where: Commonwealth Stadium, Lexington, Ky.
TV: SEC Network
Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850