Six years later, Andre Debose still working to match high school hype
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Students at Florida use a (usually pejorative) three-letter acronym to describe the locals. Gators wide receiver Andre Debose, who came to Gainesville in 2009 from Sanford, Fla., realizes that acronym now probably describes him. “I feel like an Alachua County Resident,” said the sixth-year senior who was recruited to Florida as the replacement for Percy Harvin. “I’m an ACR.”
Just how long has Debose been at Florida? Long enough to play in four different offenses. “I get confused all the time,” Debose said. “I’ve had four offensive coordinators. Six position coaches.”
So, can he name all six receivers coaches? “Let me see if I can try that. Billy Gonzales, Zach Azzanni, Aubrey Hill, Bush, um, I forget his last name, Joker Phillips, and now Chris Leak.”
Given another chance, Debose rallied and completed the set. “Bush … Hamdan,” Debose said. “Yeah. Bush Hamdan.”
Debose became an ACR because of his left ACL. He tore it on the fourth day of preseason camp last year after getting inadvertently pushed while planting his foot during a drill. He had redshirted in 2009 following surgery to correct a hamstring injury suffered running track in high school, so Debose figured his football career had ended. In the minutes after the injury, Debose remembers asking trainers if he could live a normal life without surgery. He didn’t want to go under the knife. He only wanted to move on.
Instead, as the 2013 season approached, Harvin was about to play for his second NFL team, about to start a season that would end with him dominating the Super Bowl. Debose was still in Gainesville, trying to live up to the hype that followed him from high school.
Within a few days of the knee injury, doctors convinced Debose his football career wasn’t over. Surgery would allow him to play in 2014 if he wanted. Because the injury happened last August, getting the NCAA to grant another year of eligibility would probably be easy. So, Debose underwent surgery and began rehab. He would get one more chance to become the star he was supposed to be coming out of high school.
When Debose gets down, he goes to YouTube and searches his name. The highlights of that state title game fill his screen. Once again, he sees himself floating through the end zone (4:56 mark of the video below). He remembers how the laces on Ray Ray Armstong’s 40-yard pass spun. Chills still surge through Debose’s body when he sees the official raise his hands to signal a touchdown.
Other times Debose will click on one of his four college kick return touchdowns. One more and he’ll break the SEC record in that category. Or Debose might watch his 65-yard touchdown catch on the first play from scrimmage against Alabama as a redshirt sophomore. Unfortunately for Debose, his career as a receiver has gone about how that game against the Crimson Tide did. That score put Florida up 7-0 in a contest the Gators lost 38-10. Debose has shown the occasional flash, but he hasn’t been the playmaker he thought he would be. In the three seasons he has played, Debose has caught 29 passes for 543 yards and four touchdowns. More than a quarter of those yards (151) and half of those scores came in a 54-32 win over Furman in 2011.
Still, Debose -- who is the only player on Florida’s roster with a 100-yard receiving game on his resumé -- believes he can be the weapon Meyer recruited six position coaches ago. Debose draws confidence from that fact that first-year Gators offensive coordinator Kurt Roper had one 1,000-yard receiver (Jamison Crowder) at Duke last year, and two 1,000-yard receivers (Crowder and Conner Vernon) in 2012. Under Roper, Florida’s offense, which has averaged 171.8 passing yards a game in the four seasons since Tim Tebow left, will give its wide receivers more opportunities to catch short passes and run because of schematic changes and a faster tempo. “We get the ball a lot more,” Debose said. “Clear and point-blank. We get the ball a lot more.”
Florida coach Will Muschamp believes the offense should afford Debose more chances to get the ball in space and utilize the same skills that make him an effective return man. “We missed his playmaking ability last year,” Muschamp said. “The guy is the leading kickoff returner in UF history, but a guy I think offensively we’ll probably fit him a little better [under Roper]. He’ll play on the outside and also play in the slot some. We’ll utilize him with some of the speed sweeps.”
Debose has worked harder than ever to learn the offense. He knows if he doesn’t break out this season, he won’t have many opportunities left. “I’ve learned a lot. I’ve learned that this game of football can be taken away from you in one play,” Debose said. “Just enjoy every practice. Don’t just go through the motions. It’s a privilege to be out there.”
Debose picked up his bachelor’s degree earlier this month. This fall he’ll work on his master’s. If a career in the NFL never materializes, he’ll probably go into law enforcement like his father, a sheriff’s deputy, and his mother, a correctional officer.
But there remains a chance that guy from the YouTube clips still lurks inside Debose. If that player can break loose, the newest ACR might finally match his hype. “I’m going to make the last go-around the best I can make it,” Debose said.
Sports Illustrated's Andy Staples and Zac Ellis analyze the SEC entering the 2014 season.