GAINESVILLE, Fla. — There’s a name that keeps recurring in comments from Florida head coach Jim McElwain and Gators teammates alike, suggesting a player who could be among the most impactful newcomers on the roster.
Junior college transfer Dre Massey has been pushing junior Brandon Powell at the slot receiver position, but that’s not the only job for which the two are competing.
When asked about his plans for kickoff returns a few days ago, McElwain again threw out Massey’s name.
“Well, obviously, Brandon Powell, who handled it last year, but Dre Massey, who you’ve heard me speak about before here, is a guy that, man, he gives us a lot of versatility in a lot of different ways,” McElwain said. “Not only in the return game, but in a lot of things that we’re going to do offensively. He’s one of those kind of multi-spot guys. He can throw it. He can catch it. He can run it. So he’s another guy to be looking for in that situation.”
Powell was Florida’s primary kickoff return specialist last season, averaging 21.2 yards over 24 returns with a long return of 71 yards against Vanderbilt.
But the Gators ranked just seventh in the SEC as a team while averaging a collective 21.0 yards per kickoff return and haven’t produced a touchdown from that spot since 2013, when they ranked second in the conference in kickoff return average.
(Antonio Callaway did return two punts for touchdowns last season, however.)
Florida had been very effective in the kickoff return game in recent history, ranking first or second in the SEC in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2013 and fourth in 2012 before dropping off the last two seasons.
The team will hope to be more explosive from that department this fall — with whoever is back there fielding kicks.
Powell’s 21.2 yards-per-return marked the lowest average to lead the team since 2006.
He was playing through a nagging foot injury the second half of the season, though, and is said to have finally found a solution to that issue after offseason surgery. And knowing full well what the kickoff return game has delivered for the Gators in the not-too-distant past, Powell is as hopeful as anyone for more production from that spot in 2016.
“Playing with Andre Debose, I learned a lot from him. It’s tough trying to return kicks like them not being able to have the success like them,” Powell said of his recent predecessors in that role. “Every day (you just have to) come to work, try to trust the guys in front of you to make blocks so you can spring the big one. I’ve got the easy job — just run. It’s a team effort. If the team can set up the kick returns right we’re going to score more points on returns.”
Debose led the Gators in kick return production in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2014 and averaged 26.7 yards per return with four touchdowns over those seasons.
That’s more in line with the standard Florida would like from that spot.
And if Powell can’t get it done, it sounds like the coaches won’t hesitate to try Massey, even though he did not handle kickoff returns last season at Holmes Community College in Mississippi and had only nine attempts with an average of 20.0 yards as a freshman.
His speed and all-around talent makes him an obvious potential option there, though.
Massey hasn’t been one of the Florida players made available for interviews since the team’s media day, but the reviews coming from his coach and teammates have said plenty about his performance in camp.
Meanwhile, true freshman Chauncey Gardner Jr. also drew a mention from McElwain as a guy who could get a look at that spot “down the road.”
As for the competition for the role he held last year, Powell said that’s a decision for the coaches to make.
“I’m just trying to do anything to help the team get wins, that’s all,” he said. “Wherever Coach Mac wants to put me, that’s where I want to play.”
Ryan Young is a Florida beat writer for SEC Country and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.