Assessing 2012's most intriguing players, in no particular order. Today: Junior Florida receiver/kick returner Andre Debose.
• Typecasting. Andre Debose has been at Florida for three years, which should be more than enough time to shed the "potential" label. In fact, based on the advance notices in 2009, Gainesville was supposed to be in the rearview mirror by now. As a five-star clone of NFL-bound Percy Harvin, Debose arrived that summer with a surplus of talent, a readymade niche in Urban Meyer's offense and an immediate opportunity to fill it. He also had a Heisman-winning quarterback calling the shots for a team that began the season where it had ended the previous one, at No. 1 in every major poll.
If there is a can't-miss pipeline in college football, this was it. Everything that Harvin accomplished in three years – which was everything: All-America notices, SEC and national championships, the first round of the draft – was in the cards for his heir apparent.
Nothing on that list still seems possible in the summer of 2012. Meyer is long gone. The quarterbacks have accomplished nothing. The once-dominant offense is under its third new coordinator in as many years. Debose, besieged by hamstring and ankle injuries in his first two seasons on campus and an impotent passing game in his third, has a grand total of 26 career receptions. Last year's chief play-caller, departed coordinator Charlie Weis, seemed to trust his fastest receiver to run "go" routes and not much else. No one is still comparing him to Percy Harvin.
And yet: Distant as 2009 now seems, Debose is only a redshirt junior, just hitting the prime of his college career. And, inconsistent as he's been as an underclassmen, he's also flashed enough big-play potential to rank as the most exciting, dangerous playmaker by far on an offense in desperate need of a spark. If Debose's big breakthrough hinges on the emergence of a competent passer in a competent scheme, quarterback and coordinator alike need a healthy, mature Debose to begin fulfilling the hype.
• At His Best. One thing the recruitniks got right: The kid can absolutely fly. Even post-surgery, Debose has given glimpses of the acceleration and flat-out speed that fueled the acclaim out of high school, most notably as a return man who can house it every time he touches the ball. His 88-yard sprint to the end zone against LSU in 2010 breathed life into a game that was all but over at the start of the fourth quarter; his 99-yard return against State" data-canon="Ohio Bobcats" data-type="SPORTS_OBJECT_TEAM" id="shortcode0"> in January put Florida ahead for good in the Gator Bowl, where he was voted MVP. Against Georgia last November, he set up the Gators' only points of the second half with a 64-yard breakaway into UGA territory. For the season, he averaged a hair over 26 yards per return, good for second in the SEC among regular return men, after turning in a league-high 29.7 average in 2010.
The offense did what it could to exploit that speed by designating Debose as the resident deep threat. That didn't preclude the occasional crossing route or curl pattern, but all four of Debose's touchdown catches last year came on dead sprints down the field, including torch jobs in consecutive weeks against the two of the first three cornerbacks taken in the 2012 Draft, Alabama's Dré Kirkpatrick and LSU's Morris Claiborne:
(The other two touchdowns, for the record, came on long balls against Furman in November.) All told, six of Debose's 16 catches for the year went for at least 25 yards, yielding easily the best yards-per-catch average in the conference. When the ball is in his hands, something interesting is about to happen.
• Curb Your Enthusiasm. Why is the ball so rarely in his hands? It speaks volumes about Florida's offense last year that Debose managed to lead the team in receiving on just 16 catches. But it also speaks volumes about Dubose's development: Through a combination of injuries, coaching changes and limited opportunities to do anything but "go long," he's still raw as hamburger.
Big plays notwithstanding, he's also been mostly invisible. After his quick-strike touchdown against Alabama, Debose had just one more catch vs. the Crimson Tide; aside from the bomb at LSU, he didn't have another catch in Baton Rouge. He had just one catch apiece against Auburn, Georgia and Ohio State, for a grand total of 37 yards, and didn't touch the ball at all on offense against Tennessee or South Carolina. He only touched it once against Florida State, on a tricky pass attempt that drew a flag against FSU for pass interference. His only career games with more than two catches have come against Kentucky (4 for 36 yards in 2010), Florida Atlantic (3 for 32 yards in last year's opener) and Furman (3 for 151).
Whether that lack of production falls on the quarterback, the play-calling or Debose's inability to develop into a more versatile reliable receiver (or, most likely, all of the above), it bears repeating: Florida's most potent big-play threat was effectively missing in action for half the season. If that happens again, the offense will find itself back in the doldrums.
• You should probably know… Although he was never committed to the Hurricanes, Debose still found himself caught up in the sprawl of the Nevin Shapiro scandal at Miami, thanks to a 2008 recruiting visit in which the former UM booster-turned-convicted Ponzi schemer allegedly hosted Debose and two Seminole High teammates, current 'Canes Ray-Ray Armstrong and Dyron Dye, at his $6 million Miami Beach mansion. According to Shapiro and a second source who confirmed the account to Yahoo! Sports, the pitch included a joy ride in Shapiro's $200,000 Mercedes and a night out in local clubs, among other less lucrative perks frowned upon by the NCAA.
Among the more mature faces in the crowd during Debose's encounter with Shapiro: His current position coach, former Gator receiver Aubrey Hill, who was then wide receivers coach at Miami and allegedly accompanied all three recruits to hear Shapiro's pitch. (The soiree was allegedly arranged by the Hurricanes' then-recruiting coordinator, Clint Hurtt, who now works for former Florida defensive coordinator Charlie Strong at Louisville, where he helped sway up-and-coming quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, a Miami native, from both Miami and Florida.) Both Debose and current Gator offensive lineman Matt Patchan, linked to Shapiro during another recruiting trip, were quickly cleared of any eligibility issues after the story broke last summer. Hill? The jury is still out.
• What to expect in the fall. The two most productive players on the offense the last two years, blazing tailbacks Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps, have both ridden into the sunset, as has the most frequently targeted wide receiver, Deonte Thompson. The quarterbacks, Jeff Driskel and Jacoby Brissett, spent most of the playing time they were afforded as true freshmen ducking for cover against Alabama, LSU, Auburn and Florida State. They'll spend their second season adjusting to the system new offensive coordinator Brent Pease is importing from Boise State. If there is a "go-to" player here, it's Debose.
The most obvious way to make sure the ball is actually going to him is to incorporate more bubble screens, tunnel screens and other quick, high-percentage throws that give Debose a chance to run in space. If corners are concerned about getting burned in man coverage, as they should be, they're susceptible to easy hitch routes like the one that accounted for Debose's only reception against Georgia. There's the usual array of end-arounds, double passes and other fine trickery. The Boise system has never lacked for ways to get its best players the ball.
But Pease's main challenge is getting his quarterbacks and receivers on the same page without succumbing to the dysfunction that's defined the last two years. (Or possibly three, depending on who you ask.) For Debose, and for the offense as a whole, the question has never been one of talent. It's about creating the right scenario to set it free.