GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Joker Phillips is expected to start his new job as Florida’s receivers coach/recruiting coordinator later this week.
He’ll find out pretty quickly that he’s got plenty of work ahead of him in trying to fix a position that has been a disappointment over the past three seasons.
UF’s receivers -- not including tight ends -- have largely been M.I.A. since Riley Cooper and David Nelson graduated after the 2009 season. Gators receivers combined to catch 116 passes that season, led by Cooper’s 51 receptions for 961 yards and nine touchdowns, but production has steadily declined since then.
Gators receivers combined to catch 118 passes in 2010, but Deonte Thompson led the group with only 38 catches for 570 yards and one touchdown. They combined for 69 catches last season and Thompson again led the group -- but this time had just 21 catches for 264 yards and one touchdown. UF’s receiver have combined for 58 catches this season, led by Quinton Dunbar’s 31 catches for 306 yards and four TDs.
The biggest element missing from the position, aside from the ability to consistently separate and get open, is the lack of a downfield threat. Frankie Hammond had TD catches of 55 and 75 yards, but those came after he caught a short pass and broke a tackle. No other receiver has a reception of longer than 23 yards.
Part of that is due to having a first-year starting quarterback and inconsistent pass protection, but it also is an indication that there isn’t a big-play receiver on the roster. Cooper, who is in his third season with the Philadelphia Eagles, was the last player to fill that role. He averaged 18.8 yards per catch.
Actually, there is one possibility. Andre Debose caught 16 passes for 432 yards and four touchdowns and averaged 27.0 yards per catch in 2011. But he found himself in trouble this season because of his lack of work ethic and commitment. That, plus injuries, limited Debose to two catches for 11 yards. Maybe Phillips can find a way to motivate Debose.
If he can’t -- and at least seven other coaches have tried and failed -- then the Gators’ top receiver in 2013 will be Dunbar, a 6-foot-1, 180-pound redshirt sophomore who has never lived up to his four-star billing when he signed with UF in 2010.
Freshmen Latroy Pittman and Raphael Andrades were used mainly as blockers this season. But Pittman had been the star of spring practice after enrolling early and Andrades was impressive in summer workouts. But they caught just two passes apiece and Phillips must turn them into reliable targets next season.
UF has four receivers already committed for 2013 – Ahmad Fulwood (Jacksonville, Fla./Bishop Kenny), Alvin Bailey (Seffner, Fla./Armwood), Marqui Hawkins (Columbus, Ga./Carver) and Chris Thompson (Gainesville, Fla./Gainesville) -- and all four will be given plenty of chances to crack the lineup next season.
They’re a talented group that has something that has been missing from the position for a while: size. All are 5-11 or taller, and Fulwood is 6-4, which would make him the Gators’ biggest receiver behind redshirt junior Stephen Alli (6-6), who has three catches in 35 career games.
It’s not easy for receivers to make an impact as a true freshman, but Phillips will need to develop at least one into become a consistent performer or the passing offense will struggle again next season as it did this season (114th nationally).
Phillips should be used to tough tasks after spending three seasons as Kentucky’s head coach.