By Jenna Perlman
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Early in the first quarter on Saturday when starting quarterback Jeff Driskel was sidelined with what would later be diagnosed as a season-ending injury, the Gators had already turned the ball over twice and trailed Tennessee.
The Swamp was on edge. Backup quarterback Tyler Murphy, included.
That’s when Murphy completed a screen pass to senior wide receiver Solomon Patton, who made one defender miss, got a block from teammate Trey Burton and sped up the sideline 52 yards for the Gators’ first touchdown and first lead of the day.
“I walked over to Solo and told him ‘Thank you,’ ” Murphy said.
In a matter of seconds, the mood in the stadium – and on the Florida sideline -- changed.
The Gators went on to defeat Tennessee 31-17 in the Southeastern Conference opener for both teams. For Patton, a senior from Mobile, Ala., it was his latest step toward becoming a complete receiver.
“That was a huge play we really needed,” Patton said. “I’m just glad I was the one to make that play.”
In his previous three seasons Patton had almost twice as many rushing attempts (15) as he had receptions (8), with his primary offensive role taking handoffs after going in motion and running around end. The coaching staff reminded him of that during the offseason.
“We challenged him,” UF coach Will Muschamp said. “We asked him if he wanted to continue to just be a `jet sweep guy’ or if he wanted to be a major contributor on this football team.”
Patton’s answer is clear.
In the first three games of the 2013 season, Patton has 10 catches for 212 yards and two touchdowns, while rushing five times for 27 yards. Two weeks ago at Miami, he put up career numbers of six catches for 118 yards and the first touchdown of his career.
The improved numbers are a byproduct of the extra work he put in with the quarterbacks during the offseason.
“I worked on running routes with Jeff and Tyler over the summer,” Patton said.
As a smaller receiver Patton, just 5-foot-9 and 168 pounds, needed to master routes that would complement his size; routes that get him the ball in space and allow him to use his quickness and speed.
“There are different things he can’t do as far as some of the middle reads and things that are harder to throw to a smaller guy,” Muschamp said. “So let’s get really good at the routes he can run. He mastered those.”
It wasn’t a perfect day for the guy teammates call “Solo.” In the third quarter, Patton worked free on a deep route and Murphy put the ball in his hands.
Patton dropped it.
But on the very next play, he caught a short pass and turned it into a 12-yard gain on third-and-10 to move the chains.
“He’s a playmaker and all he’s wanted to do since he’s been here is catch the ball,” said junior tailback Mack Brown. “I’m happy for him.”