With Tyrie Cleveland injured, Florida’s offense once again looking for another playmaker

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Four games into the season, Florida sophomore Tyrie Cleveland had separated himself from the pack as a deep-threat receiver in the SEC.

Four games into the season, he became the go-to guy whenever the Gators needed a big play — a needed presence with Antonio Callaway being suspended since before the season opener.

And then, just like that, just as the No. 21 Gators were beginning to find their stride on offense, their emerging playmaker could be out for the foreseeable future.

Florida coach Jim McElwain announced Monday that Cleveland suffered a high-ankle sprain against Vanderbilt on Saturday and is likely to be out against LSU this week.

“He’s in a boot right now,” McElwain said. “You know, the dreaded not normal ankle (sprain), but high ankle.”

Cleveland leads the Gators with 326 receiving yards and 2 touchdowns on 15 catches. No other Florida player has more than 107 yards.

And Cleveland’s catches have come in big situations as well.

He caught the game-winning touchdown against Tennessee — a 63-yard bomb from Feleipe Franks as time expired — to open SEC play.

He had 45-yard touchdown catch-and-run against Kentucky in which he caught a pass from Franks undefended and ran down the sideline . Cleveland also had a 50-yard catch from Kadarius Toney on the first of two fourth-quarter drives against the Wildcats.

And he caught a 49-yard pass from Franks on Franks’ third pass attempt against after replacing Luke Del Rio in the second quarter against Vanderbilt. That set up an Eddy Pineiro field goal that tied the game at 17 heading into halftime.

Cleveland also had his coming-out game as a freshman last year against LSU, catching a pass about 30 yards downfield from Austin Appleby, turning around and racing to the end zone for a 98-yard touchdown. Florida won the game 16-10 in Baton Rouge, La., to clinch the SEC East for a second straight year.

“He’s obviously been a guy on the deep stuff,” McElwain said.

Actually, he has essentially been Florida’s only guy on the deep passes so far this season.

Cleveland’s 21.73 yards ranks 14th nationally and fourth in the SEC among players with at least 10 catches this season. He is one of 12 players with four catches of at least 40 yards.

For context, Florida’s next most productive receivers this season are as follows:

  • Toney: 11 catches, 107 yards
  • Sophomore Josh Hammond: 6 catches, 93 yards
  • Senior Brandon Powell: 9 catches, 83 yards

“It definitely hurts a lot,” sophomore receiver Josh Hammond said. “He was definitely a big problem for defenses. Definitely a big, vertical, deep threat and definitely helped takes things off a lot of other guys. It’ll be a next man up mentality and I think other guys in our room will be ready to play.”

Who that next man will be an interesting development over the next week.

A combination of Hammond, Powell, Toney and sophomore Freddie Swain seems to be the most viable options to carry the load. Each has the potential to be a steady receiver and each has had made plays in his own right this season but nowhere near the level of Cleveland’s productivity.

Toney and Powell serve as the versatile slot receivers who can make defenders miss in open space.

Hammond and Swain are the boundary receivers who will have to try to stretch defenses on the outside.

“We’ll be ready,” Hammond said. “We’ll just come and prepare like we always do and just expect the ball to come our way a little more.”

It could mean an even bigger reliance on the run game, with budding freshman Malik Davis getting additional carries after his 124-yard, 2-touchdown performance against Vanderbilt.

It could mean more tight end involvement in the passing game. The Gators’ trio of C’yontai Lewis, DeAndre Goolsby and Moral Stephens has just 10 catches for 119 yards through four games, but each can add an extra element to the offense if utilized correctly.

Stephens himself turned heads on Saturday catching two passes for 45 yards on a third-quarter drive that ended in a Davis 1-yard rushing touchdown.

“I don’t think we’ve talked about those guys enough,” McElwain said of the tight ends. “C’yontai, Goolsby, Moral really kind of growing up before our eyes.”

However Cleveland’s lost production is divided, Florida will need to find a way to remedy it quickly.

The Gators’ offense had its best overall performance of the season against Vanderbilt, scoring 38 points and racking up 467 yards of offense. It was just the second time under McElwain that the Gators eclipsed 450 yards against an SEC opponent and the third time the offense was responsible for putting up more than 30 points in a conference game.

“We’ve been looked at as the offense that couldn’t do anything and we get by with our defense,” Hammond said. “But now that we’re able to score points, it’s definitely a big confidence booster for everyone.”

Hopefully enough of a confidence boost to find the team’s next playmaker in the passing game.

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