It was almost this time last year when Florida wide receiver Andre Debose made a lasting image on Gators fans. Well, at least for a quarter or two.
Debose beat Alabama cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick for a touchdown on the game's first play when the two teams met on Oct. 1 last year. For the optimists, it was a play that signaled Debose had finally arrived after several seasons of underwhelming underachievement. For the realists, it was one of many plays that shows why having a player like Debose on your team is so frustrating.
The Gators went on to get demolished in the game and Debose had just one other catch in the game. He finished the season with just 16 catches, however those receptions went for 432 yards and four scores, showing he has the ability to stretch the field and be a difference maker.
But Debose has barely seen the field this season under coach Will Muschamp and new offensive coordinator Brent Pease. On Saturday against Kentucky, Debose was benched for the entirety of the first half. Debose entered the game in the second half to return punts but muffed his first opportunity and almost turned the ball over.
Asked about why Debose didn't play in the first half, Muschamp said: "He just needs to practice better. If he practices better, he’ll play more."
That's been the knock on Debose since he arrived at Florida. Even under former coach Urban Meyer, Debose struggled to learn the playbook or the route tree and spent most of his time on the sideline or in limited packages. Now a redshirt junior, that hasn't changed in four years on campus, and Muschamp said he needs to learn how to practice well consistently.
"Anybody who is in the coaching profession, there’s a key to every kid, and we’ve got to find that key to motivate any young man, not just Andre, day in, day out, to consistently perform well, to consistently do it the right way," Muschamp said. "Because generally your practice habits carry over to the game. I’m young but I’m old-fashioned. I believe that. Guys that don’t go out and consistently perform well in practice, it generally carries over to the game. As coaches, we want guys that consistently do it well and do it right. We promote that within our program. We’re going to practice what we preach around here to our football team."
Muschamp said Debose's struggled relate more to effort than comprehension, and that Debose needs to practice well each and every time he has an opportunity -- something that can be difficult to get across to a talented, young player fresh out of high school.
"When young guys come in, it's very difficult," Muschamp said. "Most times, in most situations -- not all -- they have not been asked to work hard because they have not had to. They’ve been so much better. They’ve been the big fish in the little pond and did not have to work very hard. Their raw athleticism was so much better than the other guy that it didn’t really matter. Well now all of a sudden they’re swimming in a big lake. They have to figure out the other guy is running well too. The little things matter. How you run the route. How you cover the guy, you hand placement, your pad level. All those things do matter. And working hard all the time do matter. And you can’t have a mental lapse as far as your work ethic, concentration and focus."
But this isn't Debose's first season as a Gator. In fact, other players in their first years have supplanted Debose and taken playing time from him. Freshmen Raphael Andrades and Latroy Pittman both have more catches than Debose, which isn't that hard of a task considering Debose has failed to register a reception through four games.
Andrades was a two-star recruit according to Rivals.com. Muschamp loves to point that out. Andrades made his first career start and caught his first reception on Saturday. Debose was a five-star recruit according to Rivals.com, and he sat the bench for most of the game.
Muschamp pointed to two examples of players he's worked with in Junior Seau and Jason Taylor to point out exactly what a player must do in practice to be successful. He called them two of the best "practice players" he's ever been around.
"They’re going to be in Canton, Ohio for a reason," he said. "God blessed them with a lot of ability, but they took advantage of the ability. They took it to another level."