GAINESVILLE, Fla. — C’yontai Lewis won’t say he was frustrated by Florida’s tight end usage in recent years, won’t speak critically of the old offense, but the responses of he and the Gators’ other TEs reveal plenty nonetheless.
They couldn’t be more eager to embrace Dan Mullen’s offense and what it means for their position group in 2018.
“I think this year’s gonna be a big year for us. I mean, we’re getting a lot of action. Like, they’re using us a lot. We’re a more important piece of this offense,” Lewis said after practice Thursday, as Florida’s first spring under this new coaching staff nears a close.
“Oh yeah, man, it’s totally different from last year,” fellow redshirt senior tight end Moral Stephens said. “Because I feel like now they’re trying to do a lot more with us, like in the passing game and just getting us out in open space.”
Said redshirt freshman Kemore Gamble: “I like his offense way better than last year because we are flexed out, and we are getting the ball this year.”
Incredibly, no Florida tight end had more than 13 catches (DeAndre Goolsby), 141 receiving yards (Stephens) or 1 touchdown last year. Lewis, now projected as the Gators’ No. 1 TE, had just 7 catches for 42 yards and 1 TD.
All while Florida struggled to make plays in the passing game while also stubbornly sticking to what looked to be the same ineffective offensive approach from week to week.
“No, it wasn’t frustrating,” Lewis said. “I’m the type of player, I just play and do my part. When my time come[s], I just do what I have to do. It’s a lot of times I didn’t get the ball, but I just made good blocks to execute on run plays and pass [protection].”
It was plenty frustrating for fans, though, who clamored for the former coaching staff to get more creative and utilize the tight ends more to help break open that moribund passing attack.
Former coach Jim McElwain would often get asked about the lack of tight end usage. Sometimes he’d note how they were needed in blocking, sometimes he’d acknowledge the unit could probably be more involved in the passing game, but nothing ever changed.
Well, by all accounts and the portions of practice open to media this spring, it looks like Mullen and his staff have a different vision for the position.
Lewis says the group has been racking up catches all spring and has lined up in both two-TE and three-TE sets at times.
“If you look at all of our career catches, all of us have caught more balls [this spring] than we have our whole career. So, that should tell you a lot right there,” he said. “I mean, every day they keep track of our catches and drops and everybody’s just got a lot of numbers and catches. Everybody’s doing real good with a lot of reps. We move around from the slot to attached, detached, we do a whole lot of stuff in the offense.”
Florida’s tight ends have very different backgrounds, but all bring interesting potential to the table.
Lewis spoke earlier this spring about his connection to Mullen, who was the first coach to offer him a scholarship when he was at Mississippi State. His best year was 2016 when he caught 18 passes for 184 yards and 2 TD, but he seems a prime breakout candidate in his final season with the program.
Stephens, meanwhile, came to the Gators as a wide receiver and transitioned to tight end upon his arrival. It’s been a process to change his body and pick up the nuances of the position, and because of that he feels he’s been under the radar. He had only 1 catch entering last season and feels he’s only shown a small taste of what he can do.
“Honestly, I’m trying to do better, way better. I’m trying to take it to the next level this season,” he said. “… I already know, a lot of people probably counted me out, thinking, ‘Oh, he’s a receiver. It’s going to take him a long time [to transition].’ I mean, it has, but at the same time, I still work. People may not see, but I’m still working, getting bigger, getting stronger. I’m just trying to change my body into just being a tight end.”
And then Gamble was a coveted 4-star recruit who had his development stalled last year by a preseason foot injury that would ultimately force him to redshirt.
He says new tight ends coach Larry Scott, who recruited Gamble when he was coaching at Miami, has already had a big impact on him in their short time together.
“We have learned a lot. Coaching staff is actually kind of better, I’ve been learning a lot. We’re just flying around,” he said. “My blocking has gotten better. He has thought me how to get my steps better and my fundamentals. Right now I am a receiver/passing tight end, but he is trying to get me more into the run game which I am getting better.”
Scott said along with more involvement in the offense comes more responsibility for the tight ends, which means there’s been a lot to take in this spring and still plenty of room for improvement heading into the summer.
But he sounded encouraged by the potential of the unit, which fans should be as well as they finally get what they’ve been asking for these last couple years.
“Any time you have an offense like we run, a lot is put on their table from a standpoint that they have to know protections, run calls, pass routes. Next to the quarterback they are the guys on the field that [have] to know the most,” Scott said. ” With that comes a great sense of responsibility and accountability — make sure you are prepared and studying. And with that also comes, ‘I really have to know the game. I have to learn how defenses structure fronts and all these different things so that I can see the things that I need to, so that I can play with the consistency that I need to.’
“So I’m excited about it, we all are. We will continue until we get to where they need to be.”