ATLANTA — Tyrie Cleveland etched his name in the Florida record books this year, but he wanted his freshman season to be remembered for more than just one catch.
His 98-yard touchdown reception against LSU was the second longest scoring play in school history, but it was one of just two TDs for the nation’s No. 2 wide receiver recruit.
“My freshman year, I wanted to do a lot more,” Cleveland said after the SEC Championship Game. “I feel like I did enough to get my groove going and get my confidence up. I just wish I would have contributed more to the team and made more plays.”
Cleveland was the biggest — and most exciting — addition for the Gators in their 2016 class, flipping to Florida from Houston on National Signing Day. Unfortunately for the Jacksonville, Fla., native, his homecoming to the Sunshine State did not start off on the right foot.
Cleveland was arrested after a BB gun incident in the summer and received six months probation after pleading guilty to criminal mischief. Then in fall camp, he suffered a hamstring injury that caused him to miss several weeks of practice and the first three games of the season.
“It hurt,” Cleveland said. “I had never been injured like that. I had to sit out games and it kind of held me back from learning the system.”
But once Cleveland got healthy, his talent was evident early on. The Under Armour All-American made his debut at Tennessee and caught a 36-yard pass to setup a touchdown.
Then in Cleveland’s first home game against Missouri, he hauled in three receptions for 79 yards and his first-career touchdown. He started the next two games after that breakout performance.
As the season played out, however, Cleveland became less involved in the passing game once Austin Appleby took over at quarterback. Despite consistently getting open, he didn’t have more than three catches in any game this year.
“As a young player, I got frustrated at times,” Cleveland admitted. “It wasn’t always the quarterback. He didn’t always have time to make the read. But I just got frustrated. I’ll leave it at that.”
“Coach (Doug) Nussmeier does a great job game-planning for us and putting us in the right position to make plays. We just have to make them, and it’d be a totally different offense.”
Like most Florida fans, Cleveland is looking forward to true freshmen quarterbacks Feleipe Franks and Kyle Trask, both of whom are redshirting this season. They’re expected to compete for the starting job in 2017.
“I like both of those guys,” Cleveland said. “They’re good quarterbacks and it’s going to be a battle next year. My chemistry is real good with them. Whoever the quarterback is going to be, I have faith in them.”
Cleveland has 13 receptions for 282 yards through 12 games, with 124 of those yards coming against LSU. His 98-yard TD was the turning point in that game and helped the Gators win their second straight division title.
“I knew it was coming the whole game,” Cleveland said of his score. “Being patient and making a play like that for my team, it was great. It put points on the board and gave us momentum, took us to Atlanta. We’re going to get back here next year.”