Over the course of any team’s football season, there will always be a positional group that shines above all others. This is the group that brings out the team leaders and the playmakers, and often times can become the glue that holds a team together. It can also be the group that takes a good team that could be great, and maximizes the team’s potential taking them past expectations.
For the 2019 Florida Gators, that position group was wide receiver. A group that was loaded with talent, experience and character was projected on paper to be the best position group for the Gators before the season and they did not disappoint.
The group was led by four seniors - Van Jefferson, Freddie Swain, Josh Hammond, and Tyrie Cleveland - that were all a huge part in leading the transition between two eras of Gator football.
Dan Mullen often talks about how thankful he is for the older guys on the team that believed in his message when he first arrived to Gainesville, and for committing to what he was asking them to do. He believes it was a huge part of the major success he has been able to have early on in his tenure at Florida. These senior receivers played a major role in that.
Jefferson transferred to Florida at the beginning of the Dan Mullen era, in the fall out of the sanctions at Ole Miss. The Gators were in need a big-bodied pass catcher that could stretch the field and they hit the jackpot. Jefferson’s numbers won’t jump off the page at you, but that is more of a reflection of how much Dan Mullen’s offense spreads the ball around than his abilities as a receiver. Either way, he totaled 78 catches for 1031 yards and 12 touchdowns in his two seasons at Florida, making him Florida’s leading receiver in that span by far.
Jefferson’s polished route running ability gave the Gators some wide open looks to him down the field, and his size and athleticism made him a top target in the red zone. He was the exact type of receiver Florida was in desperate need of to round out their receiving corps, and he came through for the Gators.
Freddie Swain was a fan favorite during his recruitment and that remains true to this day. Swain’s speed has the ability to take the cap off of a defense at any time, as we saw against Auburn this year when he took a quick slant to the house after out-running three Auburn defenders.
When the ball was in Swain’s hands, good things tended to happen, and you saw that a lot with the way the Gators used Swain in the screen game this year, like when he took two screens to the house against Florida State. Florida was always able to use his speed and creativity to find open spaces and create mismatches down the field.
It was an up and down career at Florida for Swain that ended on a high note as he became a bigger part of the offense as a senior. He was one of the guys that seemed to have a better connection with Kyle Trask at quarterback than Feleipe Franks and it showed as he became a reliable option whenever the Gators needed a play.
Swain was arguably the best player on the field for the Gators against Georgia and also had a huge game against Auburn this year, but it was his touchdown that sparked the comeback against South Carolina that you could argue was his biggest play of the season.
Swain is leaving another huge hole for the Gators but the void he’ll leave off the field maybe even bigger than the one he leaves on the field. Swain was often heralded as one of the voices of the team by his teammates and if Jefferson was the leader of the receivers on the field, then Swain was definitely the glue that held them together off of it. Every time needs a guy like Freddie Swain and the Gators are going to need somebody to step up and fill his shoes next season.
Meanwhile, Josh Hammond is the unsung hero of the Gators receiving corps. Hammond was Mr. Reliable, the safety blanket, the guy who made the play whenever the Gators needed one and everything in between. He’s the silent killer that feels like he’s been at Florida longer than Perry Ellis was at Kansas, but he has been vital to the Gators' success on offense.
Hammond always made a play when Florida needs one. That 2018 LSU game is a great example. Down 10-7 with under a minute and a half left and driving, Franks found Hammond in the corner on to this day is arguably the best throw Franks made in a Gator uniform. The Gators scored on the next play to take a lead into the half, and the rest is history.
However, the best example of Hammond’s reliability is no doubt from this year’s Miami game. The Gators could not get anything going on offense and hadn’t hit a big play all game. Down 20-17 with under nine minutes left Dan Mullen dialed up a shot play and guess who was on the receiving end?
The Gators would go in to score and hold on for a huge win to kick off the season.
Hammond is another guy that might be just as valuable off the field as he is on it for the Gators and his quiet, calm presence will be missed around the team. Josh Hammond’s career at Florida may be over, but the Hammond Hive will live forever.
Tyrie Cleveland. What can you say about this guy? Cleveland has been through the ringer at Florida. He has persevered through off the field issues and injuries, and turned himself into one of the leaders on this team. Just go back and watch the FSU game and see how the crowd reacted when he almost took a kick return to the house on senior night.
Of course, when you talk about Cleveland you have to talk about the 2017 Tennessee game. As Feleipe Franks rolled to his right, stopped, and heaved one out there while time was expiring, it felt like time stopped and everything fell silent. The crowd rose and as I looked down to see if it had a shot, I saw little number 89 sneaking behind the defense. The ball appeared out of nowhere and fell into his arms and chaos ensued. I have heard The Swamp louder than that, but I don’t know if I’ve ever seen that kind of scene. It was like a concert broke out at the 50 yard line and the whole crowd was one giant mosh pit.
Cleveland is one of those guys you just know will be a big part of the program for a long time and we’ll see him watching from the sidelines for many years to come, especially given his leadership. He is one of those guys that can simply not be replaced and will be missed around this program by a lot of people.
This year also showed that the Gators are set up well to replace these four seniors. The Gators should return Trevon Grimes, Kadarius Toney, and Jacob Copeland from their receiving corps in 2020. And of course, don't forget tight end Kyle Pitts.
Grimes is a big-bodied receiver that showed he stretch the field and go up and get the ball as well. His size makes him a great red-zone target and as long he sticks around, which I expect him to do, he is penciled into the #1 spot at receiver and immediately becomes your Van Jefferson replacement. He averaged 15.1 yards per reception this year and scored three touchdowns, and as the #1 target next year, expect that production to take a massive jump.
Toney will remain the gadget guy as the Gators find a lot of different ways to get him the ball. He’s not really a traditional receiver, but his elusiveness is special. His touchdown against Miami and incredible run against Florida State show the type of explosiveness he has and the way he can take the ball to the house at any time. So long as he is healthy, his role should increase in 2020 as well.
Jacob Copeland is another guy who should become a dominant playmaker at Florida. His size combined with his explosiveness make him a threat in all parts of the field. He is a guy that the Gators just need to get the ball in the hands of and say “go.” It’s been up and down at Florida for Copeland as he's fought to climb the depth chart with so much talent around him, but if he gets consistent playing time next season, we could see Copeland have a breakout year in 2020.
The Gators have a lot to replace at receiver in 2020, but I really don’t see them dropping off as much as some seem to think they will. There is still a ton of talent out wide for the Gators, and in a Dan Mullen offense, the ball will be spread out and put every guy on the roster in positions to make plays.
With the likes of commitments Jaquavion Fraziers and Leonard Manuel, transfer Jordan Pouncey, and 2019 signings Trent Whittemore, Dionte Marks and Ja’markis Weston further down the roster, there is still plenty of talent at the position waiting to emerge.
The Gators will be very young at receiver in 2020, but they will also be very talented. With a lot of work to do, one of the most important parts of the season will be gluing this receiving corps back into the backbone of this team.