Antonio Callaway has been a nice surprise for the Gators.
But for those who have watched the Homestead High and Miami-Booker T. Washington product play Pop Warner and high school football, his ability to make plays on the football field is nothing new.
“Not to be arrogant, but we’re not surprised,” said Eddy Arza, who was on the Booker T. Washington coaching staff for Callaway’s senior season and watched him play Pop Warner.
Even after Callaway used his elite speed to turn an 18-yard catch into a 63-yard game-winning touchdown in the final minutes of Florida’s dramatic 28-27 comeback victory over Tennessee on Saturday, those close to Callaway were left unimpressed.
“I texted him that (the game-winning catch) really wasn’t nothing,” said FIU freshman quarterback Maurice Alexander, who played with Callaway at Homestead High and Booker T. Washington. “He didn’t do anything major. He could have gotten tackled or whatever.”
However, Gators coaches and players are impressed, very impressed.
Callaway, a 5-foot-11, 198-pound freshman, has already produced with nine catches for a team-high 172 yards and a touchdown this season after earning a starting job during fall practice.
Prohibited from talking to the media because of a UF program policy, Callaway’s expected to continue “talking” against No. 3 Ole Miss on Saturday (7 p.m., ESPN) with results on the field. He should make his fifth consecutive start against.
“Since he stepped in here, man, I said he’s Amari Cooper in the making,” Florida senior linebacker Antonio Morrison said of Callaway. “Just watch and remember I said that. Amari Cooper from Alabama. That’s him right there.”
It’s not only Callaway’s performance in games that have Gators coaches and players talking, it’s also the work he puts in behind the scenes. Arza said Callaway is “always full speed” in everything he does from sprints to routes to pregame warmups to stretching.
“Antonio actually comes in on his own to watch film and learn techniques, how to run routes, and you’re starting to see that start to show up,” Gators wide receivers coach Kerry Dixon said. “I’m really excited about him and his future.”
Callaway already has shown growth since the start of the season with the best performance of his freshman campaign coming last week. In his fourth game as a Gator, he recorded five catches for 112 yards, both career-highs, and his first collegiate touchdown.
Through the first three games, Callaway had combined for four catches for 60 yards.
“I don’t think Antonio has really scratched the surface,” coach Jim McElwain said. “He’s still learning how to play.”
Arza pointed to the feel and vision Callaway showed on his game-winning touchdown, as the speedster made a wide left turn after catching the ball with his back to the defenders around him.
“Right when he caught the ball, he already knew and he already felt where the defenders were,” Arza said. “That’s why he took a wide turn. If you look at the film, he took a wide left turn and turned up field. His ability to run the route while looking at the defense is what NFL guys do.”
That wasn’t the first time Arza has seen Callaway use that skill, though. He’s seen it on display many times before.
“That wasn’t a fluke,” Arza said.