GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The trophy rests in the living room of his apartment. Gators receiver Andre Debose glances at it often, a reminder of what can be.
“I can see it every day,’’ he said.
Debose was named Gator Bowl MVP on New Year’s Day in Florida’s 24-17 win over Ohio State. He earned the award for a 99-yard kickoff return that gave the Gators the lead for good in a game they had to win to avoid their first losing season in more than 30 years.
Over the past two seasons Debose has made his mark for the Gators on special teams. The kickoff return against the Buckeyes was the third of his career, setting a new school record. Debose has also shown flashes of being a big-play receiver, hauling in scores of 80 and 65 yards last season.
Still, he envisions what can be. He knows there has to be more for him to be the player Florida fans – heck, nearly every major school in the country – drooled over coming out of Seminole High in Sanford.
Since that big day in Jacksonville, Debose has tried to tap into other ways he can help the Gators as they try to return to the top of the SEC. He knows what’s at the top of the list.
“This whole summer I have tried to put in my mind to be a great wide receiver,’’ Debose said. “I know that the return game is there for me, but I really just made it my business to dedicate myself and be a better receiver and work with the quarterbacks as much I could. We spent a lot of time together over the summer just working on little things.”
Those little things could make a huge difference for the Gators. No one has ever questioned Debose’s blazing speed or his ability to make a big play down field. What has prevented him from developing into a go-to receiver is consistency.
Some days maybe he isn’t crisp in his route running. Other days maybe he is not getting by a defender the way he can. Other times it’s a dropped ball here and there.
Debose’s adjustment to college was an eye opener. He is often the fastest player on the field, but that doesn’t mean he is always open. If a defensive back pressed him at the line of scrimmage two years ago, Debose was often beaten before the play started.
“A couple of years back I would panic and not be able to get off the line,’’ Debose said. “I’m a lot more comfortable with what it takes to play wide receiver.”
He spent much of the summer working with quarterbacks Jeff Driskel and Jacoby Brisset on timing and getting used to each other in the passing game. While Debose led the Gators last season with 432 receiving yards, he caught only 16 passes, barely more than one a game.
With new offensive coordinator Brent Pease calling the plays, Debose worked overtime to make sure his number is called more than it has been in the past.
“When I watch the Boise film I see all those shots they take down the field,’’ Debose said. “He loves to air the ball out. That’s what I’m really looking forward to.
“I feel like the more opportunities I have with the ball, the more touchdowns I’m going to get. That’s all I’ve been asking for – just opportunities with the ball. I feel like I can do something special with the ball every time I have it.”
Driskel is a believer.
“He is definitely a vertical threat at any time,’’ Driskel said. “He can get behind coverage and make the quarterback look good. I like to see No. 4 running down the field.”
Other than whether Driskel or Brissett will be the team’s starting quarterback, the biggest question mark facing the Gators is who will be their primary target. Debose, a 5-foot-11, 186-pound redshirt junior, is a leading candidate.
Florida cornerback Cody Riggs goes against Debose in practice and sees the potential for Debose to be that guy.
“Debose is the most explosive player I have played against at receiver,’’ Riggs said. “He can jump out of the gym. He is one of the fastest people I’ve ever met. He has incredible hands. He is going to be a really good player.”
Senior receiver Frankie Hammond Jr. is also in the mix for a more prominent role in the passing game. He has studied Pease’s playbook extensively with Debose and witnessed firsthand a renewed drive from Debose to live up to the lofty expectations.
“He is making tremendous strides,’’ Hammond said. “He already has the talent and the speed to get by guys, so now it’s all about fine-tuning things and getting into the details of the new playbook.”
When asked what he can do to have a breakout season, Debose goes back to the little things. Running routes better. Finding holes in coverage. Better timing with the quarterbacks. The kind of stuff coaches constantly tell him.
“I know I can run with most of the people around, and I know I can catch the ball, but it’s trying to get open,’’ he said. “That’s the thing I’m working on the most. A lot of people have been expecting a lot of things out of me on a consistent basis and I just take that and run with it,’’ he said. “It must makes me want to perform each and every Saturday and show the world what I can do.”