GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Followers of Florida football knew the Gators had a special player in Antonio Callaway during their first SEC game of 2015.
On the road against Kentucky, the wide receiver from Miami had a spectacular one-handed catch — in stride — over the middle and turned it up field for a 34-yard gain.
After the play, ESPN broadcaster Brent Musburger gave a generous comment to Callaway that proved prophetic.
“I think fans of the Gators have seen one of their wide receivers of the future,” Musburger declared.
Callaway, who also had a 37-yard punt return at Kentucky, made many more believers the following week. On fourth-and-14 with under two minutes left in the game and UF trailing Tennessee 27-21, the nickname ‘big play Callaway’ was born.
The true freshman came up with arguably the greatest scoring play ever for Florida in The Swamp, especially considering what the 63-yard touchdown meant for the rivalry (UF extended its winning streak to 11), the Gators (who went on to win the SEC East) and Callaway (who broke the 21-year-old school record for receiving yards by a true freshman).
At that moment, Callaway had arrived in the eyes of Gator Nation and most of the college football world. But things began clicking for Callaway weeks before his game-winning score.
“As soon as I touched the ball,” Callaway said, “in the first game.”
Inside the Florida football program, Callaway created buzz and excitement even prior to the season opener. The former four-star recruit, who committed to the Gators on signing day, began turning heads when he reported to Gainesville last summer.
“This is a talented guy, first of all, and fun to be around,” UF coach Jim McElwain said of Callaway. “As soon as he got on campus, he started to go out and run self-skel (drills) and one-on-ones and all that. He was one that immediately stood out. It wasn’t too big for him, and he loves the competition.”
Though it didn’t take long for him to find his groove, Callaway’s stellar freshman campaign came as somewhat of a surprise to him.
“I wasn’t expecting it,” he said. “I knew I was coming in to play, but I wasn’t expecting to have a big impact. I just worked hard every day.”
That work resulted in Callaway rewriting the Florida record books, as he finished with 35 receptions for 678 yards and four touchdowns and returned 28 punts for 435 yards and two scores.
According to UF, he was the first player in program history with 600-plus receiving yards and 400-plus punt return yards in a season, while becoming just the third FBS player and only true freshman since 2008 to amass that much yardage in those two categories.
Callaway was the first UF true freshman to post three 100-yard receiving games, and his team-high 1,211 all-purpose yards on 69 plays (17.6 avg.) were the fourth-highest in school history and best ever by a freshman.
“It was a great experience,” Callaway said of last season. “Coach (Doug) Nussmeier made some great calls for me. I just play the game. Whatever I can do to help the team, I’ll do.
“I loved Florida since I was younger because I grew up watching Percy Harvin and Jeff Demps. Being compared to them, it feels awesome.”
As productive as Callaway was in 2015, his ceiling isn’t close to being reached. He has only played the receiver position for a year and half, having been a running back from Pop Warner through his junior year of high school.
Callaway suffered a season-ending torn meniscus seven games into his senior season at Booker T. Washington, but at the time he led Miami-Dade County in receiving yards. When he arrived at Florida, his work ethic impressed receivers coach Kerry Dixon II.
“Everyone was surprised initially with his athletic ability and how well he plays the game,” Dixon said. “When he came in you could hear the players talk a lot about how he was doing this summer, which was huge.
“He 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. I’m really excited about him and his future.”
In addition to his receiving skills, Callaway is a weapon for the Gators as a punt returner. He recorded the second-most yards by a Gator in a season and his two touchdown returns tied the school record. Both scores came in conference play against LSU and Alabama, and the latter set the SEC Championship Game record for longest punt return TD.
“This is a guy that this conference is going to hear about for awhile to come and rightfully so,” McElwain said of Callaway. “Not only what he does as a receiver, but obviously as a return guy. He’s energized us and he is a true playmaker. He’s a get-it-to-guy and we’re going to make sure he gets his touches.
“This guy’s got a couple of really good years left for the Gators.”
Callaway is anxious to get back to work in 2016 and build on his record-setting season.
“It was a great honor, but I still remain humble through everything,” Callaway said. “I’m going to grow. I don’t let anything get to me or go to my head. You’re going to see a lot more from me.”