Gonzales helping Florida receivers catch on

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Florida receiver Van Jefferson runs with the ball after making a catch during drills last week at the Sanders Practice Fields on the UF campus. [Brad McClenny/The Gainesville Sun]

Some numbers from about a decade ago compared to the last two seasons reveal the sad state the Florida passing/receiving game had sunk to under the former coaching staff.

In 2016 and 2017 combined, the Gator wide receivers accounted for only 17 touchdown receptions. That’s 30 fewer than the UF wide receivers combined to produce in 2008, a national championship season, and 2009.

That comparison is relevant today because Billy Gonzales was the wide receivers coach back then, and now he is again. And he’s inherited a wide receiver group that produced all of four TD receptions a year ago — two by Tyrie Cleveland and one each by Dre Massey and Freddie Swain.

Obviously, Gonzales has stepped into a much different culture than the one he left after the 2009 season.

His mission is to try and get things back to where they were. Or at least close to it.

There is a considerable gap to close.

“There’s a lack of production from last year,” Gonzales said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do. I went back through some statistics the last time I was here, so there’s a major difference between the two.

“I’m not saying we have to have that right now, but it’s about developing that type of attitude of where we need to be. That will get better. We’ll continue to grow through spring. It’s trying to establish playmaking ability.”

UF’s lack of production at wide receiver can be traced to a number of factors, the biggest probably being the lack of continuity and consistency at quarterback. The Gators have not had a reliable and consistently productive quarterback since Tim Tebow, who left about the same time Gonzales did after the 2009 season.

Protection has also be spotty over the years.

And then there has been the lack of dynamic playmakers at wide receiver and tight end. When the Gators finally found one in wide receiver Antonio Callaway, his career was ultimately derailed by problems off the field.

One of Gonzales’ biggest goals this spring is to identify and develop playmakers.

“First and foremost, find out what guys can make plays, what guys can give us that deep threat and what guys can kind of have that little wiggle,” Gonzales said. “Making a big play, it’s about the person. Can he make somebody miss after he catches the ball? We have to do a good job evaluating guys and putting them in the right situations so they can do that.”

It’s still early in the process, but some potential playmakers have begun to emerge, led by Ole Miss transfer Van Jefferson, who actually already is a proven playmaker in the SEC, having combined to catch 91 passes for 999 yards and four touchdowns the past two seasons for the Rebels.

“Van has kind of stepped up a little bit, but he’s had two years of SEC play under his belt,” Gonzales said. “I expect that out of him. He’s making plays right now. One-on-ones, he’s getting matchups, he’s running by defensive backs, he understands a little bit more, he’s got a little bit more experience.”

A few others have also made an early move, Gonzales said, singling out Swain, Kadarius Toney, Ohio State transfer Trevon Grimes and Josh Hammond.

“Freddie Swain has  impressed me with his work ethic, his attitude toward things,” Gonzales said. “KT, Kadarius, he’s explosive. Tre is learning to play like a big kid. He’s big and strong. If he can learn to play and be consistent with his hands, he’s definitely going to be a guy that’s going to be able to help us.

“Hammond is another guy, he’s fighting through a little bit right now, just pains like everybody else on the perimeter, but he’s made strides there. A guy I feel comfortable moving around to different positions right now. Those are guys that are probably starting to separate themselves a little bit from everybody else right now.”

Through the first few practices, Jefferson has clearly been UF’s top wide receiver. He’s consistently gotten open, shown sure hands and the ability to win 50-50 battles for the ball. He’s also made several big plays down the field.

The only obvious issue with Jefferson is will he be eligible this season? Transfers usually must sit out a season, but Jefferson is seeking a waiver from the NCAA that would make him eligible for 2018. He is appealing the NCAA for immediate eligibility based on the circumstances surrounding former Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze’s departure from the program there last summer. There is no timetable for when he will hear from the NCAA.

Grimes, who transferred from Ohio State, is appealing for a waiver based on his need to be closer to his family in Florida to deal with a personal situation.

Gonzales can’t control what happens with Jefferson and Grimes.

What he can do is continue to try and change the culture at wide receiver. A big part of that is improving the blocking skill of the wide receivers and, probably the No. 1 goal, teach the receivers how to get separation, something they clearly have been lacking.

“I want to be able to separate,” Gonzales said. “In order to be a great receiver, you’ve got to be able to get off the line of scrimmage with press. In this conference, you’re going to see a lot of man-to-man. If you can’t get off the line of scrimmage, you have no chance to play.

“Two is you’ve got to be able to separate. There’s a lot of technique work being able to separate in and out of breaks with techniques and top ends. So we’re putting a high level of emphasis in being able to separate at the top ends of our routes from the defenders.”

Before the receivers are going to have a chance to catch passes in a game, they’re going to have to prove they can block. That’s the way it was under Urban Meyer, and the way it will be again with the return of Gonzales.

“It’s a big deal,” he said. “I had some film from back in ’06 and ’08 and ’09 and just kind of showed some one-on-one blocking drills with those guys. The expectation level on my side on the perimeter is if you can’t block, you can’t play. They understand that. They’re buying into it.”

22 COMMENTS

    • Arnold, maybe the writer of the article should have mentioned Cleveland’s hamstring injury somewhere in the article (and most likely providing that information at the end of Gonzalez’s comment about the WRs doing well in practice) and I would not have wondered about the same thing that Paul did. After reading the article, I though Cleveland was not mentioned by Gonzalez because he was one of the receivers not performing well in practices and the ones mentioned were. That would be a solid inference based on reading the entire content on the article and Gonzalez’s comments. Lots of “holes” in Gatorsports articles lately (and I was journalistically educated at UF). But I am sure that has a lot to do now with the lack of editorial review and internet timeliness/challenges (and budgets).

  1. Ominous. There’s a great deal in this commentary that supports the notion that Mullen’s offensive philosophy is run-first, and boring. The X and Z receivers are going to try to get separation for the inevitable 3-5 yard bubble screens, and the Y receiver, they hope, will be elusive enough to take short crossing routes over the middle against zone coverage to the endzone. Check out highlights of what Louis Murphy did in Mullen’s offenses during those championship years; he blocked the edge for QB zone reads and Hernandez to catch the ball and exploit mismatches. Hey coaching staff: prove me wrong. How about a legitimate deep threat??

    • MattUF. That was not the case when Prescott was the QB at MSU. He passed for almost 4,000 yards as a senior, and they had three dynamic receivers that year. The passing game dropped off a bunch last year at MSU because of the injury to Fitzgerald, as well as his limited passing skills and the lack of big play type receivers at MSU last year (why they recruited the WR position so big at MSU this year). If playmakers develop and a QB develops at Florida under Mullen and staff, the Gators will utilize a full array of plays to open up the field. And I remember Murphy and Cooper making big plays down the field under Mullen a lot his final year. Both did well enough in Mullen’s offensive passing scheme to go on to become starters in the NFL at WR and have good careers in the NFL. I think you are selling Mullen short. But, ask any great football coach. The run opens up the passing game. Not the other way around. It also wins games and championships, along with a great defense. Ask Nick Saban and Urban Meyer.

    • I am sure Nussmeyer is slapping himself in the head and screaming, “TEs can do that?” As he sees Jason Witten running down field and making big plays. His whole world is being rocked, and he is sucking his thumg as he cries himself to sleep every night.

  2. Don’t forget the other reasons for the lack of production – unimaginative, predictable schemes and offensive coordinators (Dazz, Pease, Roper, Nuss) who could barely adjust their fly, let alone in-game adjustments. (I don’t mention Weis because I think he saw the writing on the wall and one year of Champ was enough).

  3. What are the chances Jefferson and Grimes can play this year? The NCAA is a joke and their time process on making decisions would normally relegate any respected organization as irrelevant. Any ideas?

    • In Pat’s podcast he indicated that UF feels good about the Ole Miss receiver’s chances, but he said he had also talked to a lot of people who said they did’t think it would happen for either of them

  4. UMichigan says “McElwain’s units were explosive on offense during his time at Florida, especially through the passing game.” Did they watch the two games McElwain coached va Michigan while he was at UF? “Explosive” is not a good thing if it’s the Mac/Nuss UF diarrhea offense.

  5. It’s interesting to see how many fans appear more concerned about how many passing yards UF will have than they are about how many games they will win. I enjoy a wide-open attack as much as anybody, I think, but I still find winning more satisfying than pyrotechnics on the field. And I wonder, can someone be a true football fan if they are predominantly concerned about how entertaining the passing offense is? Will they complain if the Gators manage to win a national championship but only rank in the 60s in the passing game? I still think that the object of the game is to outscore the opponent rather than to rack up more yards passing than they do.

    This does not mean, by the way, that I don’t think that Mullen can create a potent passing attack, only that this matters less than how much his teams win — at the end of the day, considerably less.

    • gator67 – I don’t pretend to speak for Gator Nation, but I suspect that the answer most would give is… If the Gators win a championship, then no, passing game pyrotechnics are not so important. BUT… we can all see the difference between a legit offense and an offense built with smoke and mirrors. If you go back to McElwain’s two SEC East Championships, we all could see that they got there with Chumps defense and a lot of luck. Both years the FSU and Bama games exposed what we all sort of knew…. that his offense couldn’t win the Florida High School Class 1A State Championship. The defense caught a bad rap in those two games but the truth of the matter was, with our three and out unimaginative offense, eventually the FSU and Bama poundings took a toll on our defense.

      So my answer is… winning is number one. But I want to see a legit offense that can control the line of scrimmage and produce a solid running game and a solid passing game. IF we can add big plays and explosiveness to that, then the entertainment factor just goes up. But first, win and win looking like you know what you’re doing.

      • Yes, they need to be a good, solid offense, which usually requires a balance. But why go back to Mac’s tenure to talk about what we might expect with Mullen? Wouldn’t it make more sense to go back to when Mullen was OC at UF? Or look at his offenses at MSU? This would be a better indicator.

      • I want the long ball back in Gainesville, and fast. but my vote is we teach these guys, the whole team really, whatever it takes to have fewer interceptions, drops and mistakes. until we upgrade our talent level we are going to have to eliminate things we don’t want as much as add things we do want to get any better. maybe in time we can upgrade our highlight real tape but imo those plays will increase once we put more pressure on the opponent by making the more routine plays more often.

  6. The Gators won a ton of games during his tenure as wide receiver coach and we had plenty of big plays and we scored a ton or points. If the spread option has us running first and throwing bubble screens that is fine if the receivers break them for touchdowns. We can’t throw deep every time. Mac actually tried to do that last year. It was the only pass Franks could complete. I’m excited to see what they can do with this group. Plus, this group was so weak last year. The bubble screens never worked because the receivers on the edge were thrown around like rag dolls. Gonzalez and Mullen have to challenge their blocking and toughness because this group was pathetically weak and never won a jump ball. They were really fast, but weak. The only way to motivate them is to challenge their blocking and getting off the ball.

  7. orlandogator. You should go view the Oklahoma drills between the WRs and DBs during spring practice over on SEC Country. I doubt the WRs will be thrown around much this year with the toughness those drills will build, along with the Savage workouts.