GAINESVILLE — We're talking receivers today. Florida has plenty this spring but they're all either unproven or unknown. To make the spring even more interesting, UF's receivers' coach is new. What's more, the quarterback is a first-year starter.
In other words, there's a lot for Urban Meyer to be worried about.
Zach Azzanni is the new receivers' coach. He comes from one of Michigan's directional schools (it's not important) and is replacing turncoat Billy Gonzales, who is now coaching receivers at Louisiana State. Azzanni seems like a pretty sharp guy. I interviewed him on Monday and this was the most interesting thing he said:
"Coach Gonzales did a hell of a job and he was a great coach but it’s always good to give a fresh start to some people sometimes and some of these guys needed a fresh start and they were all excited about the change. Every coach has their own style and philosophy and I’ve brought some things maybe they haven’t heard before and maybe a different way of teaching the same thing Coach Gonzales did — just kind of shock them a little bit, just kind of put the shockers in their heart and got them going again. And that’s a good thing.”
Note to self: Remind Azzanni to avoid heart metaphors.
ANYWAY, Azzanni has his work cut out for him this season. Florida might have a lot of receivers but that doesn't necessarily mean Florida has a lot of good receivers just yet. I haven't seen any potential All-SEC pass catchers this spring (despite what I wrote on Saturday), so that means Azzanni is going to need to develop some talent between now and the fall so Florida can take full advantage of quarterback John Brantley's arm.
"Everyone keeps reminding me of that," Azzanni said. "I’m excited about it, to be quite honest with you. I walked in here with a bunch of guys that want to learn and not a bunch of guys that have the answers and have played four years of football and just go no matter what. These guys are all kind of looking at me bright eyed because none of them had an extensive amount of playing time except Deonte [Thompson]. So, it’s kind of neat that I get to mold them in the way of my style and my philosophy."
Last season, Florida's receivers pretty much lacked style. Last season, it seemed like all of Florida's receivers suffered through a bad cause of the yips at some point. You know what the yips are, right? The yips are an internal rash that forms on the brains of athletes and flares up, impairing hand-eye coordination, when touchdowns are imminent. Deonte Thompson, Riley Cooper and Brandon James know all about the yips. They passed it around the locker room last season like swine flu. Another form of the yips brain rash affects men when they attempt to communicate with women. Alcohol cures this form of the yips.
ANYWAY, Florida's receivers were so yippy last season that the leading receiver was actually a tight end. Aaron Hernandez led the team with 68 receptions for 850 yards. That's an interesting offense, isn't it? The quarterback led the team in carries and the tight end led the team in receptions. ANYWAY, the Gators' three leading receivers from 2009 — Hernandez, Cooper and Nelson — are all gone. Thompson was Tebow's fourth option. Thompson wasn't happy with his role last season, but he did it to himself after dropping about 390 touchdown passes in the first two games. The memory of all those drops has Urban Meyer concerned this spring. Meyer has only spoken to reporters one time so far this spring but here's one of the most important things he said: "[Thompson] has got to be the man."
Of course, the best way for a receiver to cure himself of brain rash is to first come to grips ... with his yips. Bada-Bing!
According to Azzanni, Thompson seems to have done just that.
"I can’t say enough about the way he has come out with his hunger,” Azzanni said. “He knows he hasn’t lived up to the billing. He knows that. He’s humble. He’s letting his guard down. He says, ‘Coach, coach me. I want to be the best receiver here and I want to catch all those balls I may not have caught in the fall and I want to block better and I want to run better routes. What do I need to do?'"
Catch touchdowns, Deonte. Just catch touchdowns.
One reporter asked Thompson on Monday if he thought his career at UF has been a disappointment so far.
“I wouldn’t say a disappointment, I’d just say a lot of things didn’t go as planned,” Thompson said. “But things are going to get better here in the future.”
If Thompson is an unproven receiver, then the rest of UF's receivers are simply unknown. Who will step up and win playing time? That's the big question this spring. Things are so unsettled that running back Chris Rainey has been moved to slot receiver, the position vacated by Brandon James. Ideally, the slot-receiver position would be reserved for Andre Debose, but the status of his recovering hamstring is still uncertain. Making matters worse, Rainey recently pulled his hamstring and isn't practicing.
Beyond Thompson, Florida's returning receivers combined to catch 24 passes last season: Omarius Hines (14), Justin Williams (six) and Frankie Hammond Jr. (four).
Hines is currently competing with Thompson for the primary wide-receiver position, the one vacated by Cooper. A rising redshirt sophomore, Hines showed glimpses of potential last season but didn't play much. Hammond Jr., another rising redshirt sophomore, has been waiting patiently for this spring as well.
The other receiver position, the one Nelson manned in 2009, seems to be reserved for fifth-year senior Carl Moore, but there are no guarantees that Moore will be healthy in the fall. He suffered a back injury last year and missed the entire season. He's competing in contact drills this spring but hasn't returned to his old form, which was a still a work in progress when he injured his back.
"We’re being smart with him," Azzanni said. "He hasn’t played football in a year. He’s a little rusty because he hasn’t been out here for a year, but we’re knocking some of the rust off and he’s out here every day full go."
Moore is currently behind redshirt freshman Stephen Alli, the 6-5 receiver from Canada. Alli seems to have plenty of potential, but he's young. Still, he has been one of the most impressive receivers so far this spring.
With Debose still recovering from his complicated surgery (hamstring tendon), the slot-receiver position is a major cause for concern. Florida didn't get much out of James last season and the offense struggled because of it. Rainey is an option but for now true freshmen Solomon Patton and Robert Clark are receiving most of the practice time at the position.
Nothing is certain (other than Thompson "has to be the man"), so here's a guess at the depth chart for receivers if everyone is healthy by the preseason:
'Z' receiver (deep threat)