GAINESVILLE, Fla. - It no doubt wasn't fair for former Florida coach Urban Meyer to compare receiver Andre Debose to Percy Harvin before he even stepped on campus.
Harvin was one of the top playmakers in school history. He turned short passes into huge gains, made defenders look silly with open-field moves and probably would have been a Heisman Trophy contender had he not shared the spotlight with all-everything quarterback Tim Tebow.
Debose was supposed to fill the void created when Harvin left school early for the NFL in 2009. Instead, the fourth-year junior from Sanford has seemingly taken a step back this season.
"There's a key to every kid, and we've got to find that key to motivate any young man, not just Andre," coach Will Muschamp said. "Day in, day out, to consistently perform well, to consistently do it the right way, generally your practice habits carry over to the game."
Debose doesn't have a catch for the 11th-ranked Gators (4-0, 3-0 Southeastern Conference), who are off this weekend before hosting No. 3 LSU. The program's prized recruit in 2009 has two carries for a yard, has seven punt returns for 67 yards and is averaging 24.2 yards on six kickoff returns.
He has more fumbles than first downs.
"Guys that don't go out and consistently perform well in practice, it generally carries over to the game," Muschamp said. "As coaches, we want guys that consistently do it well and do it right. We promote that within our program. We're going to practice what we preach around here to our football team."
Muschamp said Debose's effort is part of the problem.
"It's consistently doing it the right way," Muschamp said. "Consistent effort."
Debose showed some potential the last two seasons, catching 26 passes for 528 yards and four touchdowns and setting a school record by returning three kickoffs for scores.
After sitting out his freshman year following knee surgery to address a lingering high school track injury, Debose returned two kickoffs for touchdowns in 2010. He was even better last year, catching 16 passes for 432 yards and four scores, and returning a kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown against Ohio State in the Gator Bowl.
He burned Alabama and LSU for long scores in back-to-back games and really looked like he would emerge as a big-play threat when he was selected the Gator Bowl's most valuable player.
But Debose hasn't found a niche under new offensive coordinator Brent Pease. Debose didn't even get on the field in the first half of last week's 38-0 win against Kentucky, an apparent suspension, and when he did finally touch the ball, he muffed a punt.
The previous week at Tennessee, the Gators tried to get Debose involved early. But he fumbled a handoff on an end around and lost 7 yards.
"There's a trust factor there," Pease said. "You got out there, you're gonna run the right route. You're gonna do it hard, whether you're covered or not. Because sometimes running a route, it isn't always built for you. Depending on what the coverage does, you've got to open it up for other players, if they double team you or play cloud coverage over the top of you. And you got to stretch the safeties.
"And if you don't do that, you hurt your teammates. So it's just a combination of being consistent, understanding, playing effort all the way through. Because, even as a receiver, you're covered at times, you have to compete. You have to continue to try to get yourself open. You can't say, 'Well, I'm covered. I'm done running my route.' And just accept the fact you're covered. That's unacceptable."
The Gators certainly could use more playmakers, especially at receiver.
Tight end Jordan Reed leads the team with 16 catches for 193 yards and a touchdown. Receivers Frankie Hammond (9 for 205, 2 TDs) and Quinton Dunbar (10 for 109, 1 TD) have looked good at times, but neither has consistently been able to stretch opposing defenses.
Debose certainly did last season, giving the Gators a glimpse of the big-play ability missing since Harvin turned pro.
"I think anybody that's got a talent like he does, you know, there's a role," Pease said. "If you don't take advantage of those things when your number is called, I mean, why not? That's your job. That's your responsibility. Get it done."
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