GAINESVILLE — When Andre Debose walked across the stage this past weekend to receive his degree from the University of Florida, few could have blamed him if he had just kept walking — straight off campus and away from the college town forever.
During his six years on campus, Debose has endured two season-ending injuries and a revolving door of coaches.
But while he admits he's "extremely surprised" he's still with the Gators, Debose enters his sixth and final season with a renewed sense of purpose and the determination to prove he's as good as once advertised.
"It's been a long time," he said. "I'm feeling great, I'm feeling real good. I'm ready to prove what I can really do."
When he signed as part of UF's 2009 class, Debose was dubbed by then-coach Urban Meyer as "the next Percy Harvin." But he was sidelined that season after surgery to repair a track injury he sustained at Sanford Seminole High. In 2010, he had just 10 receptions for 96 yards, but he was among the nation's premier kick returners.
In 2011, he had 432 receiving yards (including four touchdown receptions of 64 yards or longer), then in 2012 he had just three catches for 15 yards, but he had 510 yards as a kick returner. He had hoped 2013 would be his comeback season, but a preseason ACL injury derailed those hopes. He applied for a medical hardship waiver with the NCAA, which restored a year of eligibility to give him a sixth year.
In the process, he has had five wide receivers coaches and four offensive coordinators.
But Debose's current optimism is based on his faith in new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper and his up-tempo, spread offense. Debose is the only player on Florida's roster with a 100-yard game — a 2011 triumph against Furman.
With his body nearly completely healed (he missed Monday's practice with swelling in his knee but is expected to return on Wednesday), Debose is confident he'll thrive in an offense he believes is best suited for his talents.
"It's a great offense," Debose said. "I love the spread. This is what I was originally recruited for here at Florida. It's exactly what I did in high school."
Debose's return could be a twofold boost for the Gators because of his versatility. He holds the school record with four kickoff returns for touchdowns.
"We missed his playmaking ability last year," coach Will Muschamp said. "The guy is the leading kickoff returner in UF history, but a guy I think offensively we'll probably fit him a little better (this season). He'll play on the outside and also play in the slot some, utilize him with some of the speed sweeps and things."
For Debose and the other Gator receivers, the hope is that Roper can revive a unit that has struggled the past four years. The Gators ranked 13th and 12th, respectively, in the SEC in passing offense the past two years. The last receiver to even sniff 1,000 yards was Riley Cooper in 2009 (961).
Along with Debose, Demarcus Robinson, Ahmad Fulwood, Quinton Dunbar, Alvin Bailey and Chris Thompson, the Gators possess both speed and size at the position.
"I feel like we can be great," Debose said. "We can be the best in the SEC. We can be the best. With the offense we have, the coach puts us in a lot of situations to make plays, and I feel like we will flourish."
Contact Antonya English at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Twitter.