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What Happened to the Florida Wide Receiver?

Some schools have claims to fame, like Penn State's title of "Linebacker U". Florida is usually thought of for its quarterbacks, what with its three Heisman signal callers, but its wide receivers might be even better.

Going back to the Cuban Comet, Florida has had a great stable of wide receivers for decades. Even during the quarterback-dominated past 20 years, some of the most memorable plays have been made by receivers. Chris Doering got a touchdown in 1993. Ike Hilliard had his stop and pop in the national title game against FSU. There was Jabar Gaffney's "catch" against Tennessee in 2000, offset karma-wise by Dallas Baker's "personal foul" against Tennessee in 2004.

Even in the run-heavy Urban Meyer era, Florida had some great receivers. Andre Caldwell set the school record for receiving yards in 2007, Percy Harvin helped redefine what the position can be in the spread option, and Riley Cooper was a deadly deep threat. Even relative afterthought David Nelson, who never caught more than 25 balls in a season in Gainesville, has turned into one of Buffalo's better targets.

Things have been going downhill for the receivers lately though. In 2009, Cooper was the only receiver to catch more than 25 passes. In 2010, Deonte Thompson was the leading receiver despite having only 38 receptions for just 570 yards. So far in 2011, the top two guys on the team in receptions are running backs Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps. Against Tennessee last Saturday, the receivers as a group caught just three of John Brantley's 14 completions.

Part of the slide is explained by quarterbacking instability. Tim Tebow locked on to Cooper and TE Aaron Hernandez his senior year, and the offense was simplified greatly for weeks after his concussion. Steve Addazio never did put together a real passing offense for Brantley in 2010, and Brantley's struggles didn't help out the receivers much. Some of the receivers just haven't panned out either. For example, Thompson hasn't played up to his four-star billing. Also Andre Debose, the guy some people called the next Harvin, had issues learning Meyer's playbook and has been injured often.

To date, Charlie Weis hasn't expressed concern over the lack of production from the receivers. He's been using the old "taking what the defenses give us" line to explain a lot of the check downs and dump offs to the running backs and tight ends. I can't argue against that too much; Brantley was able to connect on some down field passes against UAB when the defense allowed for it. It also makes sense to go conservative for a quarterback who is still rehabbing his psyche, especially when Rainey is capable of taking a screen pass 83 yards for a touchdown.

At some point though, the receivers will need to start making some plays. It won't matter much what they do this weekend because Kentucky is so awful this particular year, but it will be a different story when going up against the conference's better defenses as the season goes along.