Spring Eval: Receivers Include Playmakers

It is one half of the combination that should be the tell all for the Florida offense in 2010. As much as John Brantley at quarterback will be important to Florida's chances of being successful, the receiving corps will also have to prove their worth, This spring the Gators trotted out a number of new faces at receiver and as a whole the group looks like it will be a strong one for this year.

The Gators lose starters Riley Cooper and Brandon James at receiver along with the veteran under appreciated David Nelson. While that group didn't have a particularly dynamic senior season, they were steady and dependable for Tim Tebow and company.

The Florida staff is looking for a little something different out of a group that won't be able to bring experience to the table, but should provide a great deal more athleticism as a whole and also bring a numbers game with capable bodies to keep defenses working hard.

Receiver coach Zach Azzanni has a a large group if unproven receivers to work with and knows they have some work to do.

"Anytime you lose four skill players (including tight end Aaron Hernandez) like we did, we are trying to fit pieces to the puzzle," Azzanni told the media during the last days of spring ball. "We are trying to figure out who our play makers are and who do we trust. During the summer we will put it all in a bucket, mix it up, and see how it comes out."

The receivers are confident in new quarterback John Brantley. The junior who has waited his time to take over the reigns from Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow can make all the throws necessary.

According to Azzanni, it is now up to his guys to make life easy for Brantley.

"With J.B. being such a pure thrower, everything is about timing for us right now," he said. "Our job is to get out there and paint a picture for him, and be where we are supposed to be when we are supposed to be there. They are trusting us, they are going to drop back, hitch, and throw."

Still a ways to go, by the end of spring drills , this group of receivers was getting close.

"They aren't where I want them to be," Azzanni said. "The last three practices I went home to my wife and finally told her we were getting better."

Cooper is the biggest threat that will need to be replaced from the pure receivers. He and Deonte Thompson started all year on the outside at receiver. Thompson is back and had a great spring after a somewhat slow start. Thompson has assumed a leadership role with the receivers and that seems to have helped him a great deal in his own maturation into the position. He is probably the fastest receiver on campus and he is also the strongest, a rare combination.

Azzanni talked a little about some of his X and Z receivers, the guys on the outside.

"Deonte Thompson has improved a lot," Azzanni said. "Frankie Hammond has come on big. Carl Moore improved at the end. Justin Williams did an outstanding job and got a lot better."

Moore looks like the heir apparent to Cooper as the other outside or Z receiver in the offense. Moore had a solid spring before missing a few practices due to undisclosed reasons. When he returned, he did so with a vengeance and seemed to take the bull by the horns at the Z.

Moore's backup early on was freshman Stephen Alli. Alli is a freakish athlete at 6-5 who can run like a sprinter. They put Alli through the wringer early on in the spring and before he got injured he was doing very well and pushing Moore for that starting spot at Z. A groin injury sidelined him for quite a while and he missed more than half of the final practices of spring.

Williams is a unique member in the class as he is one of only two seniors (Moore is the other). Williams had a pretty good spring and made a variety of tough catches in the process. He has excellent physical ability and if he can get the mental part of the game he really could be a difference maker in the Florida offense.

Sophomore Hammond backed up Thompson for most of the spring and showed flashes of brilliance at the X position. He is fast and deceptively big and strong. He isn't a jitter bug on the field, but he can run and make the difficult catch.

T.J. Lawrence is a sophomore that was injured for part of the spring and didn't get a ton of work when he was at practice. Lawrence is a strong receiver, probably a possession type as we move forward.

One player that will be an outside receiver but saw a great deal of time subbing at tight end is Omarius Hines. The sophomore from Texas is a big body who also took a few shovel passes inside and lined up as a flexed tight end. He would be playing the Z when spread out wide. His versatility should get him on the field a lot this year.

"Hines is such a great athlete, we are putting him in situations to see where he fits," Azzanni said. "He is unique...he can do a little bit of both (receiver and tight end). I like Omarius because he can do a lot of things. We are trying to get him the ball inside and he is hard to tackle. But, he is quick and fast enough to play on the outside."

The slot position was one that really never got untracked in 2009 after the person that defined the position at Florida left early for the NFL. We keep hearing the phrase "the next Percy Harvin", but we know there will never be another one quite like him. Brandon James played hurt all of last season and was really the only one that tried to live up to Harvin's play. It just didn't happen.

In the meantime, four players dressed this spring in the slot position and the position has a whole new light shed on it. Junior Chris Rainey moved from running back to the slot this spring and played well.

True freshmen Solomon Patton and Robert Clark came from high school early to get in on the action this spring and added speed and athleticism to the position as well.

Redshirt freshman Andre Debose was a welcome sight in the last week of practice after missing all of last year with a hamstring injury that required surgery.

The position will require whoever plays it to be able to line up in the backfield and run the ball as Harvin did on numerous occasions. We saw that a bit from Rainey, Clark, and Patton. Running back coach Stan Drayton liked what he saw out of the threesome in their time running the ball from the backfield.

"He will be cross trained for us and will have to help us at receiver and running back," Drayton said of Rainey. "He is smart enough, knows the plays, and has some game experience. We have no issues putting him in a lot of different roles for us.

The two young freshmen guys that we wanted to find out a little bit about," Drayton started in on Patton and Clark. "They showed some good sight, some good flashes, and some good burst."

Azzanni liked what he saw out of Rainey as a receiver...a position he played for the first time this spring.

"Catching the ball is a learned skill too," Azzanni said. "Rainey has the natural ability to catch the ball and we are working on that. His mentality is changing. He is going to be an every down player for us. I wouldn't have told you that the first five practices, but now he wants to be that guy to do it."

Rainey as usual was dynamic with the ball in his hand this spring. It is a natural positive for him to get the ball in even more open space to make plays. The slot position is really something he should excel at with his size, rather than trying to line up all the time in the backfield and sift through traffic to open holes in the defense.

Solomon probably had the better first half of spring and then he got injured. Patton may not be faster than Thompson, but more times than not, when he had the ball in his hands, he looked like the fastest guy on the field. Like Alli, they put his body to the test and really banged on him a lot in practice and eventually he wore down. It is something he will have to work on in the weight room, but he is a very dynamic player.

Clark is quickness defined and really played well down the stretch this spring. He is a tough one, but his size also lends himself to getting hurt, but is nothing he can really change outside of spending extra time in the weight room. He has a mean streak about him that will likely lend itself to him getting on the field quicker.

Somewhere around practice 10 of the 15 practices this spring, a sight that coaches, players, and fans alike were wanting to see happened. A healthy Andre Debose trotted out against the defense and took on defenders for the first time since his surgery last year. Debose wasn't 100% by the end of spring, but Azzanni knows he is a special athlete that will help this team.

"I saw that back in January, even at half speed you can see that God blessed him with talent," Azzanni said of the former 5-star recruit. "My job is to get him to understand how to play receiver."

Debose actually took on Janoris Jenkins in the "Circle of Life" drill...a combat drill designed to see who is the toughest between two teammates. In his first real day back with contact, Debose took down the all-American cornerback.

"I was excited, we did the circle drill and that is when you find out if a football player is a football player and that was exciting," Azzanni said.

Debose will eventually play college ball around 200 pounds and is built solid to play at that weight. The comparisons to Harvin for him were unreal, but he does have that phenomenal first step that Harvin had to accelerate from defenders or to push through small creases in the defenses. It was hard to gauge how far Debose will be back by fall but all indications are he should be as close to 100% as he can be.

In the end, you have to believe that the X position manned by Deonte Thompson will be better simply because of Thompson is older and has matured into his role as a leader. His back ups should also be a positive influence on the offense.

Almost by default, the slot position will be better with Rainey, Debose, Patton, and Clark bringing an awful lot of speed and skill to the position in the fall.

That leaves the Z where Carl Moore, Stephen Alli, Omarius Hines and company will try and make up for the absence of Riley Cooper. That won't be easy, and may not happen this year, but after a successful spring, it appears to be closer to fruition than I some might have thought.

The group just lacks overall experience, but their play making ability should make up for a great deal of that experience in 2010. O course then we add in Chris Dunkley, Quinton Dunbar, and Adrian Coxson in the fall and this depth chart may have to be thrown out the window. That is a nice problem to have.

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