Photo: Justin Shorter; Credit: Alex Shepherd
The 2021 season was a disappointing one for Florida Gators football, particularly on the offensive side of the ball while the team was less than a year removed from Kyle Trask, Kyle Pitts, Kadarius Toney and Trevon Grimes' reign of dominance.
The running back position was a strength of the team, but much like the signal-callers, Florida's wide receiver unit was underwhelming this past season. Let's take a look back at the top contributors, some young players who flashed potential, and assess what went right and wrong with the group.
We'll start with the upperclassmen, as several took on an elevated role in order to replace the production of Florida's stars from a year ago.
Senior Jacob Copeland, redshirt junior Justin Shorter, and sixth-year senior Rick Wells each stepped up, posting or tying single-season career-highs in receptions, yards and touchdowns. However, and this is in part due to struggles at quarterback, those career-high statistics combined to equate to 106 catches for 1,451 yards and 10 touchdowns — serviceable, but far from remarkable.
Copeland served as the team's primary deep threat, although his skills weren't often used as quarterback Emory Jones didn't often push the ball down the field — a mix of missed reads and lackluster play-calling are primarily to blame. Although, Copeland got his chance to shine when Anthony Richardson filled in at quarterback, seen specifically on deep touchdowns scored against USF and LSU.
Shorter and Wells, meanwhile, were used in possession-receiver roles and trusted to get the offense across the sticks. Shorter's role expanded as the season went on, using his large frame to make some contested catches at the sideline and down the field.
Younger receivers who were primarily and/or fully recruited by former head coach Dan Mullen and his staff, such as sophomore Xzavier Henderson, redshirt junior Trent Whittemore, and even redshirt freshman Ja'Quavion Fraziars, true freshman Marcus Burke and redshirt sophomore Ja'Markis Weston also pushed their way into the lineup and flashed in moments.
Henderson and Whittemore split a starting role alongside Copeland and Shorter in the Gators' 11-personnel base offense, although Whittemore missed a portion of the season with an ankle injury, a year removed from a regular-season-ending broken rib and punctured lung. The duo combined for 45 receptions, 487 yards and three touchdowns, with Henderson operating inside and out while Whittenore primarily filled the big-slot receiver position.
A special teams blunder against Alabama cost Weston further receiving opportunities throughout the season after hauling in three receptions in the season-opener, but Fraziars and Burke made their presence known when they had chances to do so down the line.
Fraziars caught touchdown passes in back-to-back weeks against Kentucky and Vanderbilt, catching five passes for 35 yards across 53 route-running snaps. Burke, meanwhile, saw the majority of his season-long action against South Carolina, where he caught two passes for 73 yards. The true freshman also dropped a pass in the game and had several targets missed due to pass inaccuracy, but it was a good first impression for a young member of Florida's future receiving corps, much like Fraziars' debut in the lineup this year.
The wide receiver room left something to be desired throughout the 2021 season, but there is potential at the position for new head coach Billy Napier and receivers coach Keary Colbert to work with. Copeland transferred to Maryland following the season and Wells ran out of eligibility, but otherwise, each contributor will return for the 2022 season and look to take their games to the next level.
AllGators will assess the state of Florida's receiver room, and other positions, for the 2022 season prior to spring training camp.
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