The biggest battle to watch this spring will be at wide receiver, where Florida loses its top two receivers for the first time since Urban Meyer rolled into Gainesville. Moreover, none of the Gators' receivers managed even half as many yards or catches as Murphy (38 catches, 655 yards) or Harvin (40 catches, 644 yards) did last season.
Here's a look at the candidates for the job:
Name Ht. Wt. Cl. '08 Stats
Deonte Thompson 6-0 195 RSO 18/269/3
Riley Cooper 6-3 215 SR 18/261/3
David Nelson 6-5 212 RSR 12/228/5
Carl Moore 6-3 225 SR 14/184/1
Justin Williams 6-0 205 RJR None (played safety)
Paul Wilson 6-0 191 RSO None
Omarius Hines 6-0 204 RFR Redshirted
Frankie Hammond, Jr. 6-0 175 RFR Redshirted
Andre Debose 6-0 176 FR 27/664/6 (HS)
Obviously, tight end Aaron Hernandez will continue his major role in the passing game (he was the third-leading receiver last year), but I'll just focus on the wideouts here.
The Scoop: Once labeled a recruiting mistake by Urban Meyer (and once mocked on national TV by Regis Philbin for not signing with Notre Dame), Nelson turned things around last season. He didn't have incredible numbers, but he made a touchdown catch on third down to give Florida a 17-10 lead against Alabama in the SEC title game, and he also caught the jump pass from Tim Tebow that sealed the Gators' 24-14 BCS win against Oklahoma.
On the heels of that finish, the former Army All-American is brimming with confidence and ready to lead the group of inexperienced wideouts.
"This is how you want to finish your career – being a
leader,” he said. “I’ve gone through a lot in my career, and being able to go
into my senior year knowing I’m the leader of the group and they’re depending
on me is something I’ve worked hard for. To be at that point now is an honor.”
Prediction: Expect Nelson to be the steady hand in the receiving corps. He won't do anything flashy or make huge, electrifying plays, but he'll be dependable. His 6-foot-5 frame will make him a nice target in the red zone. Think Dallas Baker.
The Scoop: "Quick Six" came out of Glades Central expecting to be the next Harvin, but his career hasn't gotten off to the start he wanted it to. After redshirting as a freshman, Thompson had a respectable season in 2008, but it says a lot that he was out of the picture in the three biggest games (the loss to Ole Miss, SEC title and BCS Championship.
With Harvin gone, someone has to take over the direct snaps and jet sweeps, and Thompson has the ability to do this while remaining a downfield threat as well.
Prediction: Most of the direct snap plays will go to running backs Chris Rainey and Jeffery Demps, but Thompson will be the big play guy on the outside. He'll be very effective on deep passing plays, but he won't take over the versatile role he's hoping for.
The Scoop: Cooper showed definite improvement last season. His route-running was much better (he caused a few interceptions in 2007) and even displayed the ability to run non-fly routes. He also put away the SEC title on a fourth-quarter quick slant.
But football isn't Cooper's only game. He's currently the starting right fielder for the UF baseball team, where he robs home runs, starts and finishes fights, hits for power and strikes out a lot, and it's not doing him any good to miss spring practice.
Prediction: Cooper will return to football in the summer, but he won't have a prominent role next season. He'll have his moments and a few big plays, but expect his production to remain about the same.
The Scoop: Moore was one of the biggest disappointments last season. A five-star prospect and one of the top junior college players, Moore transferred to UF from Sierra College in California. Coach Urban Meyer had to shoot down rumors of a recruiting violation after Moore's girlfriend, UF gymnast Maranda Smith, said she had spoken to Meyer on the phone during her recruitment. All this generated a lot of hype for Moore, and he didn't come close to living up to it (to be fair, he was slowed a little early in the year by a hip injury).
“The problem I was dealing with last year was, I felt like I should have been playing a lot more for the effort I was putting in,” Moore said. “Last year when I was learning, every week was something new, so my head was going everywhere.”
He says now that his mindset has changed completely, and he
doesn’t want to watch his team win another national title from the wings. "Now, I know what I have to do, I know the offense, I know everything.
All I have to do is perfect it."
From the little bit of spring practice so far, it appears that Moore does have a new attitude, and he's playing much better. Meyer said Friday was Moore's best practice in a long time.
Prediction: Moore will have a breakout year, becoming the physical presence he was billed to be. He will lead the team in receptions.
The Scoop: For his first two years at UF, coaches lauded Williams for his work ethic and marked him as an under-the-radar star in the making. But in three years, he has had more special teams tackles (24) and position changes (two) than catches (zero).
Before last season, he was moved to safety, where the depth chart looked especially weak. Williams had been a two-way star at Folkston (Ga.) Charlton County High, so he made the adjustment without complaint and continued his role on kickoff coverage. But the shift left him even further from playing time. “I had a talk with coach Meyer, and I told him I wasn’t really feeling it on defense,” Williams said. “I had to realize that I’m a receiver, and I know I can make plays at receiver. I didn’t want to change that.”
Back at receiver, Nelson has taken Williams under his wing. He’s determined not to let him toil away on the sidelines.
“He gets down on himself, and that’s where I have to come around and keep his chin up,” Nelson said. “I told him that this is going to be a big spring for him. When he plays confident, he’s one of the best receivers we have. When he gets down on himself, he falls back.”
Prediction: I've always like Williams, both as a player and person, and I think he'll be a solid contributor, although not a go-to guy. This sounds a little ridiculous because the WR corps is a little down, but I don't know if there are enough balls to go around.
The Scoop: Before Meyer went to his press conference on National Signing Day, he flipped on Debose’s highlight tape one more time. A few minutes later, he was behind a podium calling him “the best player in America” and a perfect fit for Florida’s offense. Debose, a 6-foot, 176-pound playmaker from Sanford Seminole High, is the player Meyer chose to be the next Percy Harvin. Only problem: Debose doesn’t want to be.
“I don't want to be compared to Percy Harvin, or compared to anyone else,” Debose said on signing day. “I'm my own person. I'll carve my own name.” In his senior season, Debose showed the same versatility that made Harvin so successful. He rushed for 1,332 yards and 12 touchdowns, caught 27 passes for 664 yards and six scores, threw for 353 yards and four TDs and also returned kickoffs and punts.
Widely regarded as one of the nation’s top prep receivers,
expectations will be through the roof when Debose arrives on campus this
summer. The trick will be picking up the offense and adjusting to college life
in a hurry, something Harvin accomplished quickly. “I don’t know what I can depend on right now because I
haven’t had a chance to work with him and he hasn’t been here,” Gonzales said. “Our
expectations are really high, but they’re reasonable. It’s hard to come into
any offense and have an impact as a freshman.”
Prediction: With Harvin and Demps, Meyer has shown he has no problem getting the ball to freshmen if they work hard, and Debose will get some touches. Don't buy into all the hype though. He'll be more of a sideshow than the main act. He'll wear No. 4 and show a few flashes of brilliance, but he won't factor into any crucial situations like Harvin did as a freshman.
Omarius Hines, T.J. Lawrence and Frankie Hammond, Jr.
The Scoop: All three sat out last season, so there isn't a whole lot to go off of yet. Hines is dealing with a thigh injury (this made Gonzales laugh) and I haven't seen much of the other two in practice. For what it's worth, safeties Major Wright and Ahmad Black tabbed these three as their breakout performers for this season.
"They’re all going to surprise people," Wright said. "They
helped us out a lot last year, and they’re going to go out and make plays this
year. They’re playmakers."
Hines looked huge (in a good way) when I saw him at Pro Day, and Hammond, a Hallandale High graduate, is the most exciting for his speed alone. Frankie is the only one of the three I've talked to so far, and I have to say, he's easily one of the most likeable guys on the team.
Great attitude too:
“I’m just trying to be contributor wherever that may be," Hammond said.
"Whether it’s on special teams or offense. Wherever they need me to be, I’ll go
there and give it my all.”
Hammond said the main thing coaches have him working on right now is shooting his arms out to meet the ball, or "freezing the point," which is pretty much what it sounds like. He said they work on this in practice by calling out the number they see written on the nose of the ball immediately as they catch it.
Prediction: These guys will all touch the field at different points, but they'll be more involved with Team Brantley. That's a good thing. They could all use some more time to develop, and they'll have three full seasons to tear it up after this year.