TAMPA, Fla. — Antonio Callaway isn’t heard from much. Thursday after practice he was made available to reporters for only the second time all year.
It’s been a relatively quiet season in general for the sophomore wide receiver — relative, that is, to the expectations after his breakout freshman campaign — and he addressed that in his first comments since mid November.
“It went pretty good. Not the best,” he said as the team continued its Outback Bowl preparations. “… I could have been targeted a little more, but you know, things happen.”
There are plenty such things to lament about the Florida offense this season, but the Gators’ inability to get their best playmaker ample touches each week had to be among the most frustrating.
After piling up 17 catches for 335 yards and 2 touchdowns in his first three games, Callaway managed just 30 catches for 331 yards and 1 touchdown over the last eight contests.
He doesn’t blame the quarterbacks or the play-calling, though. That’s not his style, he says.
“To be honest, I don’t really get frustrated. That’s who I am. You would think I, like, cry over the ball, but as long as our team (is) winning, you know, we’re producing, I’m good. I ain’t (a) selfish player. I’m good,” he said.
“I just come to the sideline and I just tell them what I see. I don’t too much say, ‘Coach, I’m open right here,’ or ‘Coach, let’s do this.’ I just let him do his thing, but I tell him, like, ‘Coach, when we run this, they’re in this defense and this is open.’ I don’t too much say, ‘Coach, I’m open.’ Quarterbacks see different things. I might not see what the quarterback sees.”
Everybody saw the Gators struggles, though.
For the season, they rank a lowly 115th nationally in total offense at 345.1 yards per game, but even that number is misleading. Florida reached 300 yards of offense only once in its last six games, averaging 263.7 yards during that stretch.
Stretching back to those last eight games, Callaway didn’t have more than 63 receiving yards in any contest despite being Florida’s best big-play threat and clear No. 1 receiver. This is the same guy who had a 78-yard touchdown catch against Kentucky and a 51-yard catch against Tennessee in the opening weeks of the season.
It didn’t help either when opponents started directing extra attention his way to negate that primary threat.
“It’s tough. I’d say it’s tough. Every game you’ve got a safety over the corner helping him out so it’s hard to get the ball,” Callaway said. “Coach Nuss (offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier) and Coach Mac (head coach Jim McElwain), they do a good job trying to fit me in the scheme and get the ball. …
“Sometimes Coach Nuss calls the right plays, but the play ain’t ran, everybody (doesn’t) do their assignments to the best of their ability and the play don’t look how it was drawn up.”
Callaway was an instant hit with the Gators, breaking out with 35 catches for 678 yards and 4 receiving touchdowns as a true freshman. He also scored on two punt returns and became the first player in program history with at least 400 punt return yards and 600 receiving yards.
And it was easy to project his numbers to grow even larger as a sophomore.
That didn’t pan out, like many of the hopes for the offense, but quarterback Austin Appleby believes the best is still to come from Callaway.
“He’s the hardest-working dude out here. And he deserves everything he gets because of the way that he attacks everything,” Appleby said. “The sky’s the limit for him, and the only person that can get in his way is him. I’m really, really excited about everything that’s in store for Callaway, and I’m definitely a little bummed that I don’t get to keep throwing to him for two more years.”
Appleby admits he didn’t know what to expect from Callaway initially as a graduate transfer in his first year with the program. The star receiver was officially suspended last Jan. 27 for a student code of conduct violation — he was later cleared in a university Title IX investigation stemming from a sexual assault allegation — and wasn’t allowed to attend classes until June.
He admits that hurt his preparedness for the season and he was a little out of shape when he was allowed to rejoin the team for workouts in June.
That wasn’t what stood out to Appleby, though.
“He was a little bit out of shape when he got back with us, and I watched him. I really didn’t know much about him,” the quarterback said. “I just, you know, you know what you hear. You kind of meet your teammates as you go. I didn’t know if he was going to be a diva or, you know how the hot-shot receivers are. But that’s anything but what he is.
“You watch this guy run a 40-yard sprint, go catch a ball, run back, run it again. And he’d be puking during the summer, but he’d be puking and dying and then the ball would be snapped and he’s out. He doesn’t loaf. He doesn’t take a play off.”
Callaway has one more opportunity to add to his sophomore stats and perhaps add another highlight to his collection when Florida plays Iowa in the bowl game Jan. 2, but it comes with a great challenge as well.
Iowa cornerback Desmond King is considered one of the best in the country and has 10 interceptions over the last two seasons. Callaway is eager for that matchup, he said.
“Because of all the hype that he got. I like being the underdog, to be honest,” he said. “He’s a physical player. He’s a pretty good corner overall. It’s going to be a good one.”
He also eager to put in a full offseason with an eye toward elevating his game — and the offense — in 2017.
“I can’t do nothing but get better,” Callaway said plainly. “I won’t allow myself to fall shorter.”