Tyrie Cleveland’s pupils darted over the heads of about a dozen reporters who were fashioned around him in a semicircle.
He locked eyes with fellow wideout Van Jefferson. Cleveland, a junior himself, had just been asked a question about Jefferson’s leadership qualities while the Ole Miss transfer led fellow receivers Trevon Grimes and Josh Hammond toward the rear of the huddle of journalists.
Before he could conjure impromptu praises of Jefferson’s work ethic, Cleveland chuckled at the sight of his teammates’ sarcastically interested faces. It’s a prank the corps of pass catchers enjoy playing on each other, acting interested in what their teammates have to say and sometimes raising their hands like they have a question.
The spontaneous comedy skits come with a newfound swagger among the wide receivers. It’s a lineup that includes veteran guys like Cleveland, Hammond, junior Freddie Swain and redshirt senior Dre Massey. But none are arguably more important than Jefferson, a 6-foot-2, 197-pound target who compiled 91 catches, 999 yards and four touchdowns in two campaigns with the Rebels.
His ability to play had been in jeopardy from the NCAA and SEC after the groups sanctioned Mississippi. He transferred out of the school and applied for immediate eligibility. A decision in Jefferson’s and Florida’s favor would’ve provided a huge boost in depth for the Gators.
However, Jefferson’s off-the-field intangibles are what make him a special addition for coach Dan Mullen in his first season in charge. He may turn out to be more important than that for the team as a vocal presence in the locker room despite being on campus for only eight months.
Vanchi LaShawn Jefferson Jr. stepped onto the grounds of the University of Florida in January with uncertainty about whether or not he would play during the 2018 season. His eligibility had to be approved by both the NCAA and SEC because he was transferring from Ole Miss, which was under investigation for NCAA violations at the time and eventually hit with a two-year bowl ban.
But why Florida? Why transfer to a team with a first-year head coach as opposed to any other SEC school?
“When I was leaving Ole Miss, I had coach Mullen and coach (Billy) Gonzales come talk to me, so I just feel like this is the place for me,” Jefferson said. “There’s a new staff, and I was a new player coming in, so I felt like it was a win-win situation. It worked out.”
With the new administration, Jefferson could come to UF with the same knowledge of the playbook as any other player on the team. He’s also closer to most of his family, which lives in Jacksonville. His 2-year-old daughter, who lives in his home state of Tennessee with her mother, comes down to visit him often.
“She is going to be here for all the games,” he said. “She’s a good girl.”
Of course, any new man on campus needs a roommate.
Jefferson went through the vetting process and eventually decided to room with redshirt sophomore Feleipe Franks, who started eight games at quarterback in 2017.
The two fostered a friendship, hanging out so much that it got to the point where Jefferson became somewhat annoyed with the studious, talkative quarterback.
“He’s always in the film room,” Jefferson said. “I would come in the house and he’d be on his iPad watching practice and coach me up. He’d call me and be like, ‘Why didn’t you catch that skinny (post)? Why didn’t you catch that fade?’ I’ll be like, ‘My bad.’ He’s always looking for the upper edge to get better.”
In addition to studying film from the spring, the roommates took the field in the Swamp over the summer and threw the ball around. The hard work there also came with a little bit of play. He recalled one time when Franks stood in the end zone and threw an 80-yard bomb to the other side of the field.
It’s already evident that the extra time the now-former roommates put in together is paying off. Jefferson caught two touchdowns from Franks in UF’s 53-6 victory over Charleston Southern on Saturday, both on quick slants.
The second scoring play came when a CSU defensive draped Jefferson on the goal line, but the placement on the three-yard pass was too perfect and the hands of Jefferson too strong. UF went up 38-0 with 1:38 remaining in the first half on the reception.
The payoff didn’t come without earlier sacrifice. Jefferson didn’t limit himself by just putting in extra time with Franks. He has established himself as one of the leaders by practicing extra with the other receivers. He surrounded himself with the veteran guys like Hammond and Cleveland, who showed the transfer the ropes and helped him adjust to the new school.
Then, with the absence of coaches in the summertime, Jefferson began coaching them up. According to Cleveland, one of the best things Jefferson does is lead by example.
“I learned a lot from Van,” he said. “Just being able to see him run different routes and how he handles himself on and off the field. I’m just trying to take up all the notes I can from him.”
Jefferson has taken a special liking to Grimes, a fellow transfer who came to Florida from Ohio State.
The sophomore from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, said he learned how to polish his footwork from the older receiver. He cleaned up his ability to get in and out of breaks and run his routes more smoothly from Jefferson. He also said he has learned drills and stretches from Jefferson that help him move more smoothly.
“First coming in, I wouldn’t say stiff, but just wasn’t as fluid as I wanted to be,” Grimes said. “I give (Jefferson) the biggest props for helping me transition from being a 6-(foot)-5 receiver that’s kind of stiff to being a 6-(foot)-5 receiver that plays fluid and smooth.”
The extra time Jefferson and his fellow position players have spent together seems to have fostered a camaraderie in the Gators’ receiving corp.
When Cleveland was taking questions from reporters, the others weren’t trying to make him laugh just for the fun of playing a prank.
They were waiting for him.
The junior was the final player talking to the media while the rest of the team was down the street to chowing down on the post-practice meal. Jefferson, Hammond and Grimes just didn’t want him to walk and eat alone.
Jefferson hasn’t learned his leadership qualities from just anyone. His father, Vanchi LaShawn Jefferson Sr., better known as Shawn, played over a decade in the NFL as a receiver for four different teams and is currently the wide receivers coach for the Miami Dolphins. And Van will be the first to tell you that Shawn has been the biggest impact on his football life.
“He taught me everything that I know,” Van said. “Down the line, I learned things from other coaches as well, but my dad instilled in me everything I know. Getting out of breaks, creating separation, I owe it all to my dad.”
UF’s co-offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach Billy Gonzales expressed similar convictions. He said Van’s attention to detail is impressive and that it’s a hallmark of a player who has studied under an NFL coach.
“(Van) understands the little intricacies and he’s an attention to detail guy,” Gonzales said. “(I’d) probably say that’s probably one of the things that kinda separates him is he understands. He’s got the playing experience, but understands the little things.”
Yet Van’s mental strength and focus haven’t been instilled in him by his dad. The work ethic is completely self-motivated.
In an interview with The Athletic, Shawn revealed the true way his son has been driven by his football status and expertise.
“I think what kind of fuels him sometimes is that they’ll mention him as the son of former NFL player and coach Shawn Jefferson,” he said. “Van wants to dispel all of that, which I love — I absolutely love it. That’s why when I get requests for interviews, I never call back. I want them to focus on Van and not the fact I’m his father.”
Mark Stine is the online sports editor at The Alligator. You can follow him on Twitter at @mstinejr or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.