Photo: Jacob Copeland; Credit: Jordan Herald, Florida creative media
The Florida Gators are tasked with replacing numerous starters and key contributors from its 2020 roster. In this series, AllGators will identify prospects who stand the best chance to fill crucial roles and increase their production during the 2021 season.
Ever since his arrival as the top prospect in Dan Mullen's inaugural signing class as Florida's head coach, UF fans and media alike have anticipated a breakout season from wide receiver Jacob Copeland.
If there were any season in which he was to do so, it would be the coming season.
Copeland earned a starting role at wide receiver last year and put up career numbers across the board, hauling in 23 passes for 435 yards (18.9 yards per catch) and three touchdowns. A deep threat, Copeland's average depth of target of 15.7 yards, ranking 19th-best among FBS receivers with at least 40 targets in 2020, per Pro Football Focus. 20 of his receptions resulted in first downs.
However, his production fell short in comparison to tight end Kyle Pitts, as well as wide receivers Kadarius Toney and Trevon Grimes. Those three players have found NFL homes in the past three weeks, and their combined 151 receptions, 2,343 yards, and 31 touchdowns made Copeland's solid redshirt sophomore campaign a bit of an afterthought.
We've seen over the course of the Mullen era, though, that wide receivers coach Billy Gonzales is pretty good at developing replacements for productive starters.
For example, Toney and Grimes didn't stuff the stat sheet in 2019 like they did this past season. Toney missed six games as a junior with a shoulder injury but caught only ten passes in the seven games he played in. Grimes caught a similar number of passes in his junior year as he did his senior season, but saw his touchdown count jump from three to nine.
At that time, Toney and Grimes found themselves fighting for game reps with a strong group of upperclassmen receivers above them: Van Jefferson, Freddie Swain, Josh Hammond, and Tyrie Cleveland.
Similar to this year, each of Florida's contributing senior receivers from 2019 found NFL homes that offseason through the draft and undrafted free agency. Those four players all reached career-bests in multiple receiving statistic categories under Gonzales' guidance before jumping to the pros.
There are areas of Copeland's game that continue to require development. Copeland has dropped nine passes over the last two seasons, with five in 2020. His hands are impressive at times as he's made big catches outside of his frame before, but are inconsistent as a whole. Copeland could also improve his route-running and effectiveness in the underneath passing game to become a more well-rounded receiver.
However, Copeland's big-play ability and athletic profile make him a legitimate breakout candidate at receiver as Florida's offense undergoes a shift. He clocked a 4.44-second 40-yard dash and jumped nearly 37-and-a-half inches vertically as a high school prospect - those are NFL-caliber results.
With an abundance of targets left up for grabs, Copeland is in an ideal position to emerge as a key contributor. New starting quarterback Emory Jones has been praised numerous times by head coach Dan Mullen for his "cannon for an arm." Any quarterback with a cannon for an arm would benefit from a receiver that averaged nearly 19 yards per reception in a season.
Copeland will undoubtedly compete with Justin Shorter, Xzavier Henderson, and other receivers for touches in 2021. But it's hard to look at Copeland's résumé and not imagine a production spike similar to Toney and Grimes' last season when opportunities arose.