Florida’s offense looked rusty and lifeless for most of the first half against Missouri on Saturday. It looked like a team that had barely practiced, let alone played a game, in three weeks.
After two drives that resulted in field goals from backup kicker Chris Howard to begin the game, quarterback Kyle Trask threw an interception that was returned 54 yards the other way for a touchdown to give the Tigers a 7-6 lead. Florida’s offense responded with two punts.
With just under four minutes left in the first half, wide receiver Kadarius Toney snapped the offense out of its funk.
First, Toney scooted 11 yards on first down on a screen pass after weaving past a couple of defenders. Five plays later, Toney pulled off his first magic trick of the night.
Hauling in another screen pass at the 21-yard-line, Toney juked past one defender, ducked under two would-be tacklers and escaped another diving attempt before sprinting to the end zone.
After Florida’s defense recovered a fumble moments later, Trask hit a wide-open Toney for a 30-yard touchdown, his second in 33 seconds. The senior finished with 83 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns on seven touches.
Heading into the season, there were questions if Toney would develop further as a receiver after mostly being used as a gadget player for three seasons. With four senior receivers from last year’s team graduating, the offense desperately needed another receiver to complement tight end Kyle Pitts and wide receiver Trevon Grimes. Heading into this season, Toney had nearly as many rushing attempts (47) as receptions (50).
However, Toney has been very effective as both a receiver and a runner this season. His seven receiving touchdowns are tied for eighth in the country, and everyone in front of him has played more games with the exception of Pitts. With 22 receptions, he’s more than doubled his receptions from all of last season (10) and is second on the team in yards (297).
Aside from Trask, Toney was arguably the Gators’ best player on Saturday. Florida’s two most valuable plays according to Expected Points Added (EPA) were Toney’s two touchdowns in the first half. EPA is a way to measure the value of plays in terms of points.
Saturday wasn’t a flash in the pan, either. Toney has at least four receptions, 59 yards and one touchdown in every game this season, proving that he’s not someone who can only catch screen passes.
Toney is one of Florida’s most productive receivers in terms of EPA per play. He’s third on the team in EPA per passing play and one of Trask’s go-to guys. Only Pitts has more targets than Toney.
Toney has been the Gators’ most valuable true wide receiver despite being third in EPA per play as well. The senior has been regularly getting open for big plays, such as that 30-yard touchdown on a post route on Saturday.
He’s still been a legitimate threat when Florida has involved him in the run game. Granted, Toney only has eight carries on the season, but he’s second on the team in rushing yards (83). Even after removing his 50-yard scamper against Ole Miss, Toney is still averaging 4.7 yards per carry.
On a down night for UF’s run game — Trask, who is certainly not known for his running ability, led the team in rushing yards — Toney gave it a much-needed shot in the arm with his rushing touchdown in the third quarter.
Toney is never going to be a traditional wide receiver, and making him one would rob him of everything that makes Toney a special talent. However, he’s been much more than just a gadget player this year, and that’s part of what makes Florida’s offense so difficult to defend.
Contact Brendan Farrell at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @Bfarrell727.
Kadarius Toney (1) and receiver Justin Shorter (89) celebrate a score in Saturday's win against Missouri.