GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Heading into the 2011 season, most of the talk surrounding Florida’s potential in the passing game is focused on quarterback John Brantley, new offensive coordinator Charlie Weis’ playbook, and whether Brantley will find success in Weis’ pro-style offense after his first season as the Gators’ starter in Urban Meyer’s spread attack.
In fairness to Brantley, it’s not all about the quarterback in this equation. Brantley needs help from a young group of receivers whose most experienced player is fifth-year senior Deonte Thompson.
The Gators have talent at the position but not a lot of returning production.
“We need to identify playmakers on the outside,’’ first-year coach Will Muschamp said. “We’re looking for some guys to step up in that area and make a difference on our team.’’
Let’s start with Thompson, a highly touted recruit coming out of Glades Central High in Belle Glade. Thompson (5-11, 200) led the team with 38 catches for 570 yards last season, but fans jumped on his case in the first game against Miami (Ohio) when he dropped what would have been a 44-yard touchdown pass from Brantley.
Thompson finished the season with just one touchdown reception – a nice catch in the corner of the end zone at Vanderbilt from Jordan Reed. Thompson may have had his ups and downs in the past, but in his first spring working with the Gators’ new coaching staff, he impressed Weis.
“There is an image of Deonte as the guy who dropped balls in games last year,’’ Weis said. “Well, I went through the spring and I didn’t see that. Is it that or is it what I saw? Which is it? Everyone knows he can run real fast. Everyone knows he is really physical.
“Which guy is it? By what I’ve seen of him I’ve been very encouraged.’’
After Thompson, the Gators’ leading returning receivers are sophomore Trey Burton, who hauled in 32 catches, and senior Chris Rainey, who had 25 receptions. Burton and Rainey are running backs who can line up at receiver, but the majority of their receptions come out of the backfield.
Among the wide receivers, redshirt junior Frankie Hammond (5-11, 186) finished with 22 catches a year ago, the most of any wideout besides Thompson. The unit’s biggest loss is Carl Moore, a regular starter last season.
Redshirt sophomore Andre Debose has the physical tools to be a go-to receiver and has become a dynamic kickoff return specialist, but he remains a largely unproven member of the passing game. Debose (5-11, 188) caught 10 passes for 96 yards in 2010 and enters fall camp as a player coaches will be watching closely.
“Is he going to get into the serious mix?’’ Weis said. “Those are the things you don’t know yet. Right now that’s just a question mark. He didn’t do enough in the spring [due to injuries] to evaluate pro or con where we are with him.’’
One player who did stand out in the spring is sophomore Quinton Dunbar (6-2, 190), a lanky receiver with long arms and legs and good speed. Muschamp said Dunbar and Thompson showed the most potential in the spring to be the primary playmakers on the outside, a good sign for Dunbar. He did not catch a pass as a freshman and played in just two games.
Redshirt junior Omarius Hines (6-0, 220) hauled in 20 catches last season and showed his versatility as a runner on an occasional reverse, and sophomores Solomon Patton (5-8, 175) and Robert Clark (5-8, 175) each played as true freshmen.
If none of the returning receivers stand out in fall camp, true freshman Ja’Juan Story is someone who could climb the depth chart quickly. Story (6-3, 196) offers a strong mix of speed and power and played quarterback, running back and receiver at Brooksville’s Nature Coast High. Redshirt sophomore Stephen Alli (6-5, 220) is another potential big target for Brantley if he moves up the depth chart.
“We have a lot of speed at wide receiver,’’ Weis said. “I wouldn’t say it’s the most experienced group, but we have a lot of speed and a lot of physicality.’’
Meanwhile, the Gators have a strong group of receivers at tight end, a position Weis utilized in the passing game regularly at Notre Dame. Former Fighting Irish tight ends Kyle Rudolph and John Carlson played for Weis and are now in the NFL. Weis is known to use two tight-end sets regularly in his pro-style attack, so look for the position to play a prominent role.
As the Gators search for playmakers, they have a proven one in Reed, who split time at quarterback as a freshman. Reed (6-3, 240) passed for 328 yards, rushed for 252 and had six receptions for 79 yards in his do-a-little-bit-of-everything role.
Reed can line up at tight end or move to the outside at times to create mismatches with smaller defensive backs, providing multiple concerns for opposing defensive coordinators. Sophomore Gerald Christian, who worked at linebacker in the spring, is back at tight end following the departure of Michael McFarland.
Christian (6-3, 245), redshirt junior Josh Postell (6-3, 230) and incoming freshman A.C. Leonard (6-2, 245) provide the group with depth. Leonard is a highly touted recruit from University Christian in Jacksonville and was rated the No. 5 tight end prospect in the nation by Rivals.com. He enrolled in January and is ahead of the learning curve after going through spring drills.
If Weis’ history proves true, the Gators will throw the ball often, meaning there will be plenty of opportunities for this group of receivers to make a difference in Muschamp’s first season. The only question is who will it be?