Clay Burton did not have an active role in the passing game during his first three years at Florida.
Heading into the season, Burton had just three career receptions for 24 yards.
But after building his rapport with quarterback Jeff Driskel throughout summer and fall camp, the senior tight end showed that his contributions this season will extend further than his blocking skills.
In Florida’s 2014 season opener against Eastern Michigan, Burton led Florida with seven receptions — three more than all the Gators’ tight ends caught last season.
"It’s just a lot of hard work that’s kind of finally coming to the surface," Burton said.
Added offensive coordinator Kurt Roper: "I can’t say that I was surprised. We’ve been out there quite a bit in practice. I think what he is is a guy that has been steady for us the whole time. … He plays with a great base and he understands how to be in good positions, so that just carried over to the passing game."
Burton will continue to receive looks in Florida’s aerial attack, especially since Virginia transfer Jake McGee — who Roper said has the best hands at the position — is out for the year with a fractured tibia and fibula.
"We’re definitely going to miss him," Burton said, "but other guys have to step up and play well."
Burton said that while he has improved his pass-catching skills, Florida’s depth among its skill positions gives it opportunities to spread the ball around.
"Anybody can really get the ball. Whoever is open," Burton said. "Whatever read that Jeff [Driskel] makes. We count on him to make the right one. The ball gets spread around."
With McGee’s season finished, senior Tevin Westbrook will assume the backup tight end role while true freshman DeAndre Goolsby will move up to third string.
"The philosophy is not really going to change. (Burton’s) going to be the starting tight end and we’re going to obviously play him a lot, but Tevin’s got to be ready to go quite a bit now," Roper said.
"And we’ll see how DeAndre comes along in practice and all those things."
Prior to McGee’s injury, Roper and coach Will Muschamp had plans to redshirt Goolsby to give him a year to better learn the offense.
"I think at (tight end), you’re talking a true freshman playing a violent, physical position that carries a lot in our offense," Roper said.
"And so, that’s why typically you don’t see true freshmen playing a whole bunch at that position. There is so much going on for him, run game, pass game, protections, matching up against 270-pound guys in certain situations. It’s a challenge. You like those guys to be able to grow and develop a little bit. He’s got some athletic ability in space that is pretty good."
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Clay Burton runs with the ball during Florida's 65-0 win against Eastern Michigan on Saturday at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.