GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- What used to be a strength at the University of Florida has become the program’s major weakness.
The Gators used to churn out All-SEC receivers on a somewhat regular basis. At the very worst, there’d always be a UF player or two somewhere in the annual list of the league’s top 10 receivers.
But in the past three seasons, UF’s receivers haven’t exactly matched that kind of production. In fact, they’ve been downright unproductive – and they’re the main reason UF’s passing offense has had its worst three-year stretch since 1987-89.
UF has averaged 146.3, 185.7 and 184.3 yards per game passing the past three seasons. No wide receiver has caught more than 38 passes (Deonte Thompson did that in 2010) and a running back led the team in receptions in 2011.
It doesn’t look like those numbers could change much in 2013, either. UF has just two players on the roster with more than 30 career catches. One is Trey Burton, who is UF’s wildcat quarterback, running back and H-back and will line up at receiver this season.
The Gators signed five receivers and will be counting on at least one of them -- most likely Demarcus Robinson, who enrolled in January -- to make a significant impact. However, that’s unlikely: Of the 61 receivers UF signed from 1990-2012, only 20 played as true freshmen and only 19 caught passes. Of those 19, only four caught more than seven passes.
How did Florida get into this situation, especially after having one of the nation’s top players in Percy Harvin from 2006-08 and another NFL receiver on the roster -- Riley Cooper -- from 2006-09?
Two main reasons: Recruiting misses and coaching transition.
UF signed 14 receivers from 2008-2012, with the 2008-10 classes belonging to former coach Urban Meyer.
Of those 14, five transferred from the program for various reasons. Two were players that UF coach Will Muschamp likely wouldn’t have signed had he not decided to honor every commitment the Gators had when he was hired in December 2010. Javares McRoy transferred to Texas Tech in April 2011 and Ja’Juan Story left for TCU a week after the Gators began 2012 preseason practice.
McRoy is the opposite of what Muschamp wants in a receiver. McRoy is 5-foot-9 and 165 pounds, a perfect fit for Meyer’s spread-option offense. He liked smaller, shiftier players. Muschamp likes bigger, physical receivers.
Story (6-3, 190) met the size requirement, but wasn’t good enough to get on the field.
Of the other signees, one graduated with three career catches (Stephen Alli), another enters his senior season with eight career catches and another was a junior college transfer who caught just 41 passes in an injury-filled three-year career.
And then there’s Andre Debose, the nation’s No. 2 receiver and No. 17 overall player in the ESPN rankings in 2009. Meyer tabbed him the next Harvin, but a hamstring injury forced him to redshirt and he has just 29 receptions in the last three seasons. He’s had work ethic and attitude problems and caught just three passes last season after catching four touchdown passes of 64 yards or longer in 2011.
Debose is perhaps the poster child for what has gone wrong with UF’s receivers. He’s loaded with talent but has not progressed in his development, which brings us to the second reason the receivers have struggled.
The move that started the trouble was Billy Gonzales’ decision to leave Florida for LSU after the 2009 season. Gonzales helped develop Dallas Baker, Percy Harvin, Andre Caldwell and Chad Jackson into NFL draft picks during his five seasons in Gainesville.
When he left, Meyer hired Zach Azzanni, who was a GA under Meyer at Bowling Green in 2001-02. Azzanni didn’t exactly have big-time college experience – he was the Falcons’ receivers coach from 2003-06 and was the assistant head coach and receivers coach at Central Michigan from 2007-09 – and the players didn’t respond to him well in 2010. That was Meyer’s final season, when the team wasn't exactly full of discipline.
When Muschamp was hired, he brought in former Gators receiver Aubrey Hill, who had spent the past six seasons at Pittsburgh (2005-07) and Miami (2008-10). Hill had the reputation as a very good recruiter, but he produced just two draft picks in six years (Pitt’s Derek Kinder went in the seventh round and Miami’s Leonard Hankerson went in the third round).
Hankerson had a fantastic year as a senior, setting school records for receiving touchdowns (13) and receiving yards (1,156), and remains the best player Hill has coached.
In Hill’s only season at UF, running back Chris Rainey led the team with 31 catches and only one receiver had more than 16 catches (Thompson had 21).
Hill abruptly resigned for personal reasons the day before camp began in 2012, and Muschamp had graduate assistant Bush Hamdan coach the receivers that season. Muschamp hired former Kentucky head coach Joker Phillips in January.
That could turn out to be one of the best hires Muschamp will make. Phillips has coached receivers for 18 seasons at Kentucky (1991-96 and 2003-2009), Cincinnati (1997), Minnesota (1999-2000), Notre Dame (2001) and South Carolina (2002). NFL players Steve Johnson (Buffalo) and Randall Cobb (Green Bay) are among the receivers Phillips worked with during his tenure at Kentucky. He also coached Craig Yeast, Keenan Burton, Dicky Lyons Jr., and Derek Abney, all of whom rank in the top five in UK history in career receptions or career receiving yardage.