Fresh talent: Skilled crew ready to step up at wide receiver for Gators

Florida wide receiver Freddie Swain (16) talks with wide receiver Ja'Markis Weston (82) after the game against Vanderbilt at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on. Nov. 9. The Gators beat the Commodores 56-0. [Brad McClenny/The Gainesville Sun]

FORT LAUDERDALE — It has become obvious this season that the strength of the Florida offense is a deep and talented group of receivers. And it’s senior strength.

 Seniors Van Jefferson, Freddie Swain, Josh Hammond and Tyrie Cleveland have combined for 127 receptions for 1,670 yards and 16 touchdowns.

 Those four playmakers are now down to their final game Monday in the Orange Bowl, which begs the question: who steps up to replace them and their production next season?

 There are some proven veterans who are ready to take on a more prominent role — Trevon Grimes, Jacob Copeland and Kadarius Toney. But that’s only three. The Gators will need others.

 That’s where the three true freshmen who redshirted this season come into play — Ja’Markis Weston, Dionte Marks and Trent Whittemore. Toiling all fall on the scout team, these three may have largely become forgotten by many in Gator Nation. But not among their teammates.

 Jefferson says Gator fans — and quarterback Kyle Trask — are really going to like these young guys in 2020.

 “Next year, you’ll be talking about Trent, Ja’Markis and Dionte,” Jefferson said Thursday. “Those are three guys that will be like, ‘Whoa, where did they come from?’ They work hard, they put in the time. It’s going to pay off for them next season.

 “Coach G (wide receivers coach Billy Gonzales) likes them, the whole team likes them. Especially what they do on the scout team going against Marco (Wilson) and CJ (Henderson) and those guys.

 “If they come back and say, ‘Oh, man, those guys are fast.’ We know they’re doing something. Those are going to be three guys who have a big impact next year.”

 The one who could have the biggest impact also happens to be the biggest of the three, the 6-foot-3, 217-pound Weston, who also is the fastest and the strongest.

 UF coach Dan Mullen tagged Weston as the sleeper of the 2019 recruiting class a year ago. That has started coming to fruition on the practice field, according to the veteran receivers.

 “Weston is probably the fastest guy on the team, and at almost 230 pounds,” senior running back Lamical Perine said. “He runs a 4.4 or 4.3 40. He’s a great talent.”

 Said senior wide receiver Josh Hammond: “Ja’Markis is the biggest, the fastest, probably the strongest out of the group. He’s really talented, really fast. He plays with a little chip on his shoulder. I like his game. As long as he can stay focused, keep working hard, I think he’ll be really good in the future.”

 Weston apparently has given the starting secondary fits at times in practice with his combination of size and speed. Whittemore and Marks have also made their share of plays and caught the attention of their teammates, especially the veteran players on offense.

 “All of them make plays consistently on a day-to-day basis,” Hammond said. “They work their tails off with us. They work their tails off in the offseason as well. They’re putting themselves in a position to make those plays (next season).”

 Like Weston, Marks apparently is a burner, while Whittemore, the versatile athlete from Buchholz High, is more of a possession receiver who is quick and runs precise routes.

 “Trent Whittemore is a great guy,” Perine said. “He can catch the ball, possession catcher. He’s more like a Julian Edelman-type guy. He’s going to be good.

 “Dionte Marks is super fast, can do a lot of things. He’s going to be a great kick return and punt returner for us. All three of those (freshmen) are going to be great receivers for us in the future. You’re going to hear their names.”

 Here’s another name you just might hear: Rick Wells, who will be a redshirt senior in 2020. On and off the field, he has endured some struggles in his four years in Gainesville. He has probably become a forgotten player to many.

 But Wells (6-0, 202 pounds), who has excelled on special teams this season and has the size and speed to be a factor at wide receiver, may be on the verge of breaking out, according to Hammond.

 “Definitely,” Hammond said. “I like Rick a lot. He’s been humbled, worked his tail off. He’s definitely had his moments when he’s been down. Right now, he’s been making the plays he needs to. He’s growing constantly, day in and day out.

 “I think our coaching staff is really starting to see him grow and develop into that playmaking guy that they want him to be. He’ll be a really big playmaker for the team next year. He just has to continue to work, continue to stay focused. He’ll be really good for the Florida Gators next year.”

No. 9 Florida (10-2) vs. No. 24 Virginia (9-4), Monday, 8 p.m., ESPN at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens