GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Billy Gonzales, Florida’s co-offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach, knows what the numbers say.
He knows that Gators receivers totaled just 7 touchdowns last season (with 3 coming from departed senior Brandon Powell). But he also knows how things were the last time he was here, coaching the unit under Urban Meyer and Dan Mullen.
That’s the expectation he carries to the practice field this spring, understanding that there’s a sizable gap between past standards and recent reality.
“I just think there’s a lack of production from last year. Coming back experience level, the whole group that I’ve got coming back [had] 4 touchdowns. We’ve got a lot of work to go,” Gonzales said. “I went through some statistics and I think it was ’08, ’09, the last time I was here, the unit put up 39 touchdowns, so there’s a major difference between the two.
“I’m not saying we need to have that right now, but it’s about developing that type of attitude of where we need to be. And that will get better. That will continue to grow through spring, but it’s trying to establish playmaking ability.”
To get even more to the point, it’s about trying to elevate a position group that has largely underperformed in recent years.
One can attribute that in part to inconsistencies at the quarterback position and on the offensive line, or to the play calling of the previous regime. Injuries took their toll as well.
But the numbers are what they are. No Florida receiver had more than 42 catches (Powell) or 410 receiving yards (Tyrie Cleveland) in 2017.
When former star wideout Antonio Callaway was lost for the season to an indefinite suspension, the presumption was that would open up opportunities for other players to emerge. Yet, Powell and Cleveland (22 catches while being slowed by a high-ankle sprain) were the only players on the roster with at least 20 receptions.
And whatever the contributing factors, Gonzales isn’t interested in excuses moving forward.
“What separates guys out here is being able to catch the ball — on the perimeter, can they catch a ball, a contested ball?” he said. “I don’t want to hear, ‘Hey, coach, he’s holding me.’ Good players don’t get held. That’s kind of what it is. Can they get off, can they separate and can they make the contested catch? …
“If you can’t get off the line of scrimmage, you have no chance to play. Two, you’ve got to be able to separate. There’s a lot of technique work being able to separate in and out of breaks with techniques and top ends. So we’re putting a high level of emphasis in being able to separate at the top ends of our routes from the defenders.”
Gonzales said his receivers get graded on every rep in practice — every catch, every missed assignment, etc. — and those grades are shared with the unit.
“Yeah, we don’t have any secrets. We have a grade sheet, hand it to everybody. Everybody sees each other’s grades. It’s kind of your worth to the program,” Gonzales said. “We always talk about blocking. There’s blocking sheets on it, it’s a whole grade sheet. We do it every day and everybody sees each other’s grade. It holds everybody accountable. … I think the guys are eager, but I think we’re a long way away from where we need to be right now.”
That said, Gonzales did dole out some praise to the receivers who have caught his eye through the first three spring practices.
He started with Van Jefferson, the transfer from Ole Miss who is awaiting word on his eligibility for 2018.
Jefferson totaled 91 catches for 999 yards and 4 touchdowns over the last two seasons with the Rebels while playing mostly in the slot. He’s working on the outside with the Gators and could wind up as the focal point of the passing game if he’s cleared to play right away.
“He’s making plays right now. One-on-ones, he’s getting matchups, he’s running by defensive backs, he understands a little bit more, probably. He’s got a little bit more experience,” Gonzales said.
Interestingly, the next guy Gonzales highlighted was junior Freddie Swain, who had just 8 catches for 96 yards and a touchdown last fall. Swain has looked the part in spurts and has been an effective blocker, but he’s yet to show consistent production as a pass catcher through two seasons.
Gonzales called sophomore Kadarius Toney “explosive,” which is no surprise. He noted that Ohio State transfer Trevon Grimes “is learning to play like a big kid” and could be a factor if he gets more consistent with his hands. He also touted junior Josh Hammond’s potential.
Hammond was perhaps set up to be the biggest beneficiary of Callaway’s absence last season, but he finished with a quiet 18 catches for 246 yards.
“He’s a guy who’s kind of made strides for me and a guy I feel comfortable moving around to different positions right now,” Gonzales said. “Those are guys that are probably starting to separate themselves a little bit from everybody else.”
It should be noted that Cleveland, who was the Gators’ best receiver last season — and their only established deep threat — has been slowed by injury to start the spring.
All told, Gonzales is making his expectations clear to the unit, and it’s about more than boosting those touchdown numbers closer to the offenses he remembers from his last stint in Gainesville.
It’s about every detail that it’s going to take to elevate this unit collectively.
“I had some film from back in ’06 and ’08 and ’07 and just kind of showed some one-on-one blocking drills with those guys,” Gonzales said. “The expectation level on my side on the perimeter is if you can’t block, you can’t play. They understand that.”