Andre Debose has never come close to the enormous expectations that accompanied him to Florida. His first two seasons were modest, and last year was so abysmal that he avoids thinking about it.
“I really don’t want to talk about last year,” he said. “I don’t like last year.”
Hardly anyone liked it. Debose, now a fifth-year senior, was a non-factor in the Gators’ stunning 11-2 season. He clashed with coaches, did not catch a ball until his fifth game and was yanked off punt returns because he was a liability.
The player once described by former UF coach Urban Meyer as the next Percy Harvin finished his junior year with three catches for 15 yards and no touchdowns. He closed his season with a 100-yard kick return for a score in the Sugar Bowl, a rare highlight for him in the 2012 season.
Maybe he grasps that time is dwindling, both as a Florida player and as someone who aspires to the NFL. He has a chance to start at receiver this year and be the No. 1 option at kick returner. As the Gators work toward their season opener Aug. 31 against Toledo, Debose is trying to salvage his career.
“I think his attitude’s really changed,” quarterback Jeff Driskel said. “He’s having a better outlook on everything. He realizes this is his last chance.”
Some of Debose’s issues have been beyond his control, like the brutal torn hamstring that cost him all of 2009 and probably hindered him in 2010 as well. He also missed time because of a knee injury last year.
Plus, since signing with UF in 2009, Debose has had three offensive coordinators and is on his fifth position coach. Asked recently if that affected his play, he replied, “You tell me.”
But then there is his work ethic. Florida coach Will Muschamp questioned Debose’s effort last year, and offensive coordinator Brent Pease said early in the season he could not rely on him to run hard on every snap.
“I really ain’t put in a lot of time outside of the stadium,” said Debose, who came out of spring practices as second-stringer on the depth chart. “That’s what I’m working on this year. I’ve always depended on my natural ability rather than trying to better myself.”
His ego got in the way, too, and he was annoyed by plays that called for him to be a decoy.
“I would have to run a certain route to get somebody else open and it just got kinda repetitive,” he said. “I really just wanted the ball. It just got kinda old to me, man. But I’ve definitely worked through that. Now I understand it more and I know everything we do is for a reason.”
Debose also did not get along with interim receivers coach Bush Hamdan, now at Arkansas State. Hamdan replaced Aubrey Hill when Hill was forced to resign at the beginning of the season due to his connection with the NCAA’s investigation of the Miami booster scandal. Under Hill, Debose caught 16 passes for 432 yards and four touchdowns in 2011.
Debose did not respect Hamdan, a graduate assistant, and they often disagreed. He hopes this season will go better in part because of a good relationship with new receivers coach Joker Phillips.
“He came in and let us know that he was for us and you could trust him,” Debose said of Phillips. “He knows what he’s doing and he let it be known that he has a voice with the coaches. He’s actually being listened to, unlike my coaches in the past. That’s something I’m looking forward to.”
Whether any of these changes matter and whether he has made meaningful changes will not be known until the season starts.
But on a team desperate for a big-time playmaker, Debose has serious credentials. He is the most successful kick returner in program history with four career touchdowns and the single-season record for yards per return. He had 65-yard touchdown catches against Alabama and LSU two years ago.
The Gators need a threat like that, and a renewed Debose might finally provide it.