"Yes, I believe I can do it," he said in a voice so reassured that there wasn't the slightest bit of hesitation. "I believe I'm ready."
Cornelius said he was ready to be a big game hunter but the numbers said something else. He caught all of seven passes for 105 yards as a freshman in 2003. Last season, there was a modest increase --- 12 catches for 154 yards and three touchdowns. Through the Gators first three games, he had six catches for 78 yards, half the catches earned against Tennessee after Caldwell went down for the season with a broken leg.
The production numbers seemed a reflection of the Cornelius personality. He's a very modest kid, not prone to bragging or big talk. Coach Urban Meyer said, "You talk about all the right things … he's about all the right things."
Being about all the right things doesn't always translate into success on the football field where too often it is the guys who are about all the wrong things who become the stars and the darlings of the media. Cornelius has never been within a sniff of trouble since he arrived at Florida out of Fort Meade, where he was a three-time All-State selection at three different positions. At Fort Meade, Cornelius was All-State as a sophomore as a defensive back; as a junior at wide receiver; and as a senior at quarterback.
In Gainesville, he's been a good enough student to make the freshman All-SEC Academic honor roll and he's been a solid citizen on and off the field. The son of a pastor in Fort Meade, he's never done anything off the field that would bring disgrace either to his family or his team. On the field, though, his production was so modest that most Florida fans had him penciled in as a nice kid who would finish his career with a degree from UF and some nice memories.
All that changed Saturday when Cornelius was finally given his chance to be more than a role player in the Florida offense. He said at last week's media day that he welcomed the challenge and the opportunity to be a go-to guy. When give the chance to prove it, he came through with the kind of numbers that made you wonder what could have been if he had been given a chance early on in his career as a Gator.
Against the Wildcats Cornelius had eight catches 139 yards and he returned two kickoffs, one for 26 yards that was within one block of going the distance. Among his pass receptions was one for 50 yards in which he showed off the kind of speed and elusiveness that will have defensive coordinators around the SEC re-evaluating him during the next several days. No doubt, they, like a majority of Florida fans, have probably thought JC is a role player, a complimentary guy who gets scraps while the big guys get the bones with meat on them.
Besides proving that patience is indeed a virtue, Cornelius proved that he's not just a complimentary player but one very capable of making catches and moving with the football in traffic. He's about 20 pounds lighter than Caldwell so he gives a hint of frailty in his appearance, but there is nothing frail about the way he tucks the ball and cuts it upfield after making a catch. He's got blazing speed and when he knows the play is about to end, he secures the ball and showed Saturday that he's not afraid to deliver the first blow to the defensive back.
Cornelius got his breakout game the first time he's ever been given the chance to be a real playmaker. The timing couldn't have been better because his improved game coincided with the expansion of Florida's offense into previously uncharted waters. Through the first three games, the Gators spread the field but they didn't run the option or show much imagination in the offensive package. Saturday, the Gators opened up their arsenal and found ways to use all their weapons with near-perfect efficiency in a first half that saw Florida score on seven straight possessions.
That Florida scored seven straight times was very impressive but check the manner in which the Gators did it. Florida scored 49 points in the first half. There were four passing touchdowns and three rushing touchdowns. Florida ran 52 first half plays: 26 runs and 26 passes. The Gators ran 13 times and passed 13 times in each of the first two quarters. The Gators racked up 437 total yards, 298 through the air and 139 on the ground.
The numbers were mind-numbing and spectacular but at the same time, they were almost methodical. This wasn't production that featured one highlight reel play after another. This was simply a matter of execution and people doing their jobs the way they are drawn up on the chalkboard. Besides execution, the key word of the day was efficiency. This was a very efficient performance with very little wasted effort or motion.
If you are looking for the two most positive developments out of Saturday's win, then look no further to Cornelius stepping up to show he belongs with the big boys and the fact that the Gators got second year execution from the offense in game four of Meyer's first year. The coach has been saying for several months that he's looking for second year production from a first year offense. He got it Saturday and amazingly, it wasn't with flash and hi-tech gimmickry.
That bodes well for the remaining seven games on the schedule. There will be moments when the flash and gimmickry will pay off with the kind of plays that will featured on Sports Center but in the meantime, simple execution will result in methodical but steady production that frazzles opponents because they just can't find ways to stop it once it gets going.
Saturday's breakout performance by Cornelius and the Gators breakout performance on offense proved to be a mirror image: not a whole lot of style points or highlight reel material, but plenty of solid, consistent efforts, the result of efficient execution. Defenses that gear up to stop the big plays will discover that this is an offense that thrives equally well in churning out one seven or eight yard gain after another. That's a quiet way of doing things, but it sure does work.