GAINESVILLE — As Florida began its latest quarterback battle Tuesday on the first day of spring practice, the only players almost as important as the ones throwing the ball were the ones catching it.
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Antonio Callaway was sprinting after a slant. Dre Massey was back running and cutting after tearing his ACL on last season's opening kickoff. Breakout candidate Tyrie Cleveland looked like a former top-50 national recruit, hauling in a touchdown pass from Feleipe Franks.
"We've got Florida speed out there," coach Jim McElwain said.
That wasn't always the case during McElwain's first two seasons and Will Muschamp's offense-impaired tenure.
Only two UF receivers have been selected in the last six NFL drafts. None have been chosen in the first three rounds since Percy Harvin in 2009.
The Gators entered last fall with only 159 career catches and 23 touchdowns; no receiver had more than four career touchdowns. The lack of proven playmakers is one reason why UF's offense remained in a rut, and why the Gators averaged only 6.8 yards per passing attempt — down from 7.2 the previous year, and the third-worst in the SEC.
But the Gators have boosted the position's talent and experience, which is why McElwain said his receiving corps has become "a real group of strength for us."
Start with the volume of returning production. Six Gators had multiple touchdown catches last season. All six are back. That list includes all three of UF's top targets — receivers Callaway and Brandon Powell plus tight end DeAndre Goolsby— and seven of its top eight.
Sophomore receiver Josh Hammond said there will be fewer mental mistakes. "We'll be able to play a lot faster than we did last year," he said.
They'll also be able to play with more talent and depth.
The Gators' 2016 recruiting class was their best offensive haul since the 2006 crop that included Harvin and Tim Tebow. UF signed as many four-star receivers over its last two classes (five) as it did in the previous four. That doesn't even include Callaway, who is enjoying the first spring of his career after missing last year's drills over a sexual assault investigation (UF cleared him of the accusation in August).
"We see ourselves as the best group in the country," Powell said.
While that claim seems like a stretch, the group that showed up Tuesday is no longer a glaring, head-scratching weakness in a state and conference known for churning out speedy playmakers.
And it should only get better.
Freddie Swain (shoulder) is out for the spring. Rick Wells (leg) didn't practice, either, and Massey is only doing non-contact work. The incoming recruiting class includes two blue-chip talents ranked among the state's top 35 recruits — James Robinson and Tampa Bay Tech's Daquon Green.
The corps have to be ready to star quickly.
Unless Luke Del Rio makes a remarkable turnaround from his shoulder injury this fall, UF will break in a new starting quarterback. Either Franks (the favorite) or Kyle Trask will need all the help he can get in his first college appearance at a Sept. 2 season-opener against Michigan.
"Those guys aren't afraid to throw the ball down the field, no doubt about it," McElwain said. "We've got a couple guys that can chase it down."
At last, McElwain believes his Gators have Florida speed.
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