GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Sophomore wide receiver Tyrie Cleveland knows Florida’s offense sputtered last season — and for a while before he joined the team, too.
This year, though, he feels something will be different. This year, Cleveland is more than optimistic that the Gators will break out of the offensive drought that has plagued the team for just under a decade now.
All he needs to do is look down the line at practice and see the rest of the wide receivers he’s sharing reps with each day.
“We have a lot of weapons,” Cleveland said. “Every wide receiver has a different playing style, and you can use that throughout the whole offense and put up big numbers.”
Florida’s depth at wide receiver is noticeable, even with star wide receiver Antonio Callaway suspended for the season opener against Michigan.
They return Cleveland, a 6-foot-2 playmaker on the sidelines who averaged more than 21 yards per catch as a freshman last season.
They return sure-handed senior Brandon Powell, as well as bubbling sophomores Freddie Swain and Josh Hammond.
They also have versatile receiver Dre Massey returning from an ACL injury in his right knee and electric freshman Kadarius Toney, who can line up at just about any skill position spot. Freshmen James Robinson and DaQuon Green are trying to get in on the action, too.
That’s nine receivers fighting for playing time every day at practice, nine players keeping each other in line.
With that much depth, one bad practice could be the difference between starting and coming in during garbage time.
“The competition level is definitely high, and we know every day that we’ve gotta come in and work really hard,” Hammond said. “And I think that’s the standard we have in our receiver group, and that’s why we’re gonna be probably really good this year.”
National media outlets are taking notice, too. Athlon Sports ranked the Gators receiving corps as No. 5 in the country and No. 1 in the SEC. ESPN has Florida’s trio of Callaway, Powell and tight end DeAndre Goolsby as the third-best pass-catching tandem in the SEC.
If everything works out, though, Florida’s receiver corps has the potential to be as good and as deep as the group from the 2008 national championship team — a star-studded group on the field that included Percy Harvin, Louis Murphy, Riley Cooper, the late Aaron Hernandez, Deonte Thompson and David Nelson.
“I think this year,” Cleveland said, “we’re going to shock the world.”
Putting on any sort of consistent offensive performance that isn’t riddled by incompletions, runs up the middle that are stuffed at the line of scrimmage and sacks might be enough to do that.
Since 2010, Florida has finished no better than 83rd nationally in total offense. The passing hit its peak in that time frame last year when it averaged 215.8 yards per game — good for 79th in the country.
“You just work hard and put on the show on game day,” Cleveland said.
Cleveland is ready to show what he can do in 2017 after an up-and-down freshman season.
He was suspended for the season opener against Massachusetts after shooting a BB gun at a residence hall on Florida’s campus. He also missed the North Texas game with a hamstring injury.
But once he got on the field, he showed glimpses of his talent.
There was his first career catch, a 36-yard over-the-shoulder grab down the right sideline against Tennessee. There was his first career touchdown catch, hauling in a pass on a crossing route and turning upfield for a 20-yard score against Missouri.
And there was the 98-yard touchdown catch-and-run that helped Florida defeat LSU 16-10 in Baton Rouge, La., to win the SEC East for a second consecutive year. All told, 4 of Cleveland’s 14 catches went for at least 20 yards.
But there were also the three games in which he was held without a catch and six more in which he had fewer than 20 yards of total offense. As a 4-star signee and the No. 2 receiver in the Class of 2016, according to the 247Sports composite, he felt overwhelmed at times by the expectations.
This year, Cleveland said he’s blocking out the outside noise. His sole focus is improving what he can do.
“It takes a lot of weight off my shoulders,” Cleveland said. “Last year, I don’t want to say I was pressured, but there were a lot of eyes on me. I feel like this year, the game has slowed down, and I feel more comfortable playing.”
If Cleveland can do that, it’ll add another layer to the Gators’ already-deep wide receiver corps.
“You grind at practice and work hard,” Cleveland said. “When the time comes, show it.”