GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida coach Jim McElwain gave an encouraging status report Wednesday evening on injured receivers Tyrie Cleveland (ankle) and Kadarius Toney (shoulder), indicating both are probable to play Saturday against Georgia.
“I’m going to say they’re going to play because they’re trying so hard to play,” he said, indicating that both need to be evaluated over the rest of the week.
Getting Cleveland and Toney back is the first step. The next, though, is getting the most out of them, as Toney’s elusiveness in space and Cleveland’s ability to stretch the field could be the Gators’ best chances for offensive success against the stout Bulldogs.
So far, Florida has not maximized the potential of those play makers.
After initially turning heads by transforming short screen passes into highlight-reel gains, Toney had become mostly a wildcat specialist before sustaining the separated shoulder. He had just 1 catch for 5 yards against Vanderbilt and no receptions against LSU (the game in which he got injured).
Getting him involved in the running game is worthwhile, but his ability for chunk plays as a receiver is where he is most intriguing.
“Moving forward, we definitely hope to use him a lot more,” Florida wide receivers coach Kerry Dixon said this week.
That would be a good step for this offense. McElwain noted earlier in the season that the coaches didn’t want to overload Toney as he transitioned from quarterback to receiver, but halfway through the season there’s no reason his role in the passing game should be diminishing rather than growing.
Especially as Dixon indicated Toney has picked up the position well in practice.
“He’s done a wonderful job. As you can see, we’ve moved him all around. Playing the position of quarterback, it teaches you the entire phase of the game, the whole concept of the offense. So it was real easy for him to transition to the wide receiver spot. I was very surprised by his great ball skills,” he said.
“We’ve added a ton (to his plate) since the beginning of the year. We knew he was special in the spring, as well as in fall camp. It was just a matter of when he made that transition, understanding the techniques of route-running.”
The more Toney can grow into a complete receiver, the better, but in the meantime he offers upside even if just featured more in Florida’s heavy use of screens and slants.
He’s already shown in small doses he can turn limited openings into big gains.
Cleveland, meanwhile, is an essential dynamic for the Gators, who have proven that without him they have no viable downfield threat. Florida took limited deep shots the last two games to other receivers with no success, while Cleveland has hauled in completions of 63 yards, 50 yards and 49 yards this fall.
Georgia’s defense, which ranks fourth nationally against the run, figures to make life hard for Florida’s capable rushing attack. The Bulldogs have held five of their seven opponents to fewer than 70 rushing yards.
Their pass defense is also impressive, but Missouri showed two weeks ago that it can be attacked. Tigers quarterback Drew Lock threw a pair of 63-yard touchdown passes to Emanuel Hall, one as Hall got open behind the Georgia defense and another down the sideline.
For all of Florida QB Feleipe Franks’ struggles as a redshirt freshman, he does throw a nice deep ball when given the green light. He and Cleveland have shown nice chemistry on those plays, and a couple big strikes between the two Saturday would do wonders for the Gators in shortening the field and giving the offense a spark.
Fellow receiver Brandon Powell commented earlier this week that Cleveland looks back to his old self after the ankle injury. That’s the key, because if he isn’t limited by the ankle he is a daunting matchup for any defensive back.
“There’s a comfort level when you have that deep threat out there,” Dixon said. “They have to make certain coverage adjustments to him, which is a great asset to the offense as a whole. … His [size] gives you a jump ball threat, and the speed factor, you can’t substitute that.”
Plain and simple, Florida faces its toughest challenge of the season Saturday, and with what the offense has shown through six games this sets up as a very unfavorable matchup.
But rivalry games can be unpredictable. If the Gators are going to surprise people Saturday, they need Toney and Cleveland to not only be healthy but also be difference-makers.