LEXINGTON, Ky. — Somehow Saturday night, a freshman slot receiver delivered Florida’s best rushing play and best passing play of the evening.
Somehow, just three games into his collegiate career and still with only a small sample size to evaluate, Kadarius Toney looks like the Gators’ best offensive playmaker.
A reporter quipped to quarterback Luke Del Rio after Florida’s dramatic 28-27 win at Kentucky that perhaps Toney should touch the ball every other play.
“I agree. I agree. Sometimes I’m just like, ‘Go, make five people miss and then throw the best ball of the night.’ He’s electric,” Del Rio said. “He’s a great guy, he’s mature beyond his years. Smart player. He knows five positions. That’s really hard for any player. He’s a freshman, true freshman. So he played great, and he’s a big weapon for us.”
The fan base would have reached yet another new peak of frustration if Florida didn’t find a way to get Toney more involved after he looked like a video game character while juking and cutting his way through Tennessee’s defense a week ago. He managed to turn 4 short passes into 40 yards in that game along with a 5-yard rush, while only teasing what he might be capable of in a bigger role.
To offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier’s credit, he obliged.
Toney was targeted on Florida’s second possession. He caught a short pass to the left, stopped and completely reversed field to the right on his way to a 19-yard gain. Early in the second quarter, he lined up in the wildcat and raced 36 yards seemingly untouched for the Gators’ first rushing touchdown since last Oct. 29, ending an inexplicable drought.
Kadarius Toney sees a hole … SEE YA!
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) September 24, 2017
And yet that wasn’t even his best highlight Saturday night.
With Florida down 13 points early in the fourth quarter and looking for any signs of hope, Toney provided it.
Del Rio took the snap and rolled to his left, pitched it back to Toney who was running right and the freshman threw on the run, chucking a beautiful spiral to Tyrie Cleveland for a 50-yard gain down to the Kentucky 30-yard line. Six plays later, the Gators were in the end zone for the first of two fourth-quarter touchdowns in their momentous rally.
“(He’s) actually got a cannon, and that’s probably not as far as he can throw. He can sling it,” receiver Freddie Swain said.
Overall, Toney finished with 39 rushing yards, 50 passing yards and 4 receptions for 35 yards.
Last week Florida coach Jim McElwain called him a “human joystick.” This week, Florida defensive end CeCe Jefferson stuck with the video game theme as well.
“Kadarius Toney, that boy got a create-a-player name. That’s what he plays like, a create-a-player,” Jefferson said. “Hats off to him. I watched that guy work hard in camp, and it’s just showing. He’s a guy that’s going to help us win a lot of games. Hats off to you KT, I hope you see this, man. You’re a hell of a player.”
— Ryan Young (@RyanYoungSEC) September 24, 2017
McElwain is usually reserved in doling out praise to rookies. In general, he likes to keep his players humble after good games.
So naturally, when asked about Toney after the game Saturday night, he started with a critique, noting how the young player had ran the wrong direction on one route and adding that, “He’ll continue to learn.”
But pressed more about the exciting dynamic Toney brings to an offense that has rarely been exciting or dynamic this season, McElwain acknowledged in his own way that the freshman has arrived.
“People are going to know where he’s at,” he said. “I think the continued growth of what we’ll be able to do out of the Gator package with him back there, bit by bit it’s going to add some things to us that’s going to help us.”
McElwain had stated earlier in the week that the coaches don’t want to overload Toney, who was a quarterback in high school and in his first spring practice with the Gators. He’s still transitioning to receiver and they don’t want to give him everything at once. That goes for returning punts or kicks, too.
So this is still only a tease of potential from the fan-favorite freshman from Mobile, Ala., then?
It’s hard to imagine what is still to come.
What seems pretty clear, though, is that the future is now for Florida’s talented freshmen. That includes running back Malik Davis, who rushed for 60 yards on 13 carries in the fourth quarter alone Saturday night, suddenly morphing into a wrecking ball of a workhorse back after receiving only 5 carries over the first two games.
Add in the freshmen in the secondary, and the youth movement is in full force. That comes with risk — rookies make mistakes as they grow — but also reward.
That much was inarguable Saturday night.
“The amount of young guys that we have — I can’t even remember how many guys that came here my freshman year played on the team,” Jefferson said. “This atmosphere is very new for those young guys, so if they didn’t respond well that was kind of expected and they have a little more leeway because this is a new atmosphere to them. … Shout-out to our young guys, I’m not even going to call them young guys, I’m going to call them our guys, for stepping up and rising to the occasion and playing four quarters. Man, that showed me a lot about them and their maturity level.”