Moral Stephens leaped forward with the ball extended over the pylon, his first collegiate touchdown a mere inches away. Ultimately, the replay booth ruled Stephens down inside the one-yard line, but the play was a defining series for the redshirt junior tight end.
A former Taylor County standout, Stephens played primarily on special teams throughout his first two seasons in Gainesville. His first UF reception, a 14-yard pass from quarterback Luke Del Rio, came in 2016 against Kentucky, and Stephens doubled his career total with a 10-yard reception this season against Tennessee.
Before Saturday, that was it – two receptions for 24 yards over a span of 20 games in the orange and blue.
So when Stephens doubled his reception total on one drive against Vanderbilt, coming down with a 29-yard catch before the 16-yard grab that nearly led to six, it was a defining moment for the redshirt junior in the 38-24 Florida win over the Commodores at Florida Field.
“It feels great, you know what I’m saying. All the hard work is finally paying off,” Stephens said. “I ain’t never lacked confidence. It’s just being out there more. Just getting used to playing the position and stuff.”
Stephens, a former four-star wide receiver prospect, feels like he’s ready to consistently contribute for the Gators. And it’s reflected in practice, where the coaching staff rotates which tight end works with the first-team unit. Considering the injuries the Gators have sustained on offense, the coaching staff wants all potential weapons to prepare as if their number will be called on Saturdays.
“Our coaches do a good job of rotating the tight ends real good. We rotate a lot during practice so we all get looks of what could be possibly called in the game,” Stephens said. “Let’s just say if C’yontai (Lewis) got them all that day, I’m going to get them the next day. They make sure we all get the same rep counts and stuff so if I’m in the game, they’re in the game, we’ll be ready for it.”
Now that he’s had a breakout game so to speak, the possibility exists that defenses will be aware Stephens is now being used as a pass-catching threat rather than as a blocking tight end or special teams reserve. He isn’t speculating on whether his role will expand on offense or not, but, as he’s always done, Stephens will be ready when the coaching staff calls for No. 82.
“We’re going to see next week,” Stephens said. “Other than that man, I think I’m ready.”