GAINESVILLE — Billy Gonzales was an out-of-work football coach, shopping with his wife and daughter at an outdoor mall in Miami, when he got the call that could change the Florida Gators’ fortunes.
Billy Napier needed a new receivers coach.
“I lit up,” Gonzales said.
UF fans probably did, too. Gonzales is one of the most important, unsung position coaches the Gators have had.
In his first stint at Florida under Urban Meyer (2005-09), Gonzales developed four first-team all-SEC receivers and two second-team selections. Six were drafted.
In the Gators’ next eight seasons without him, zero UF receivers were first-team all-SEC selections and only two earned second-team/honorable-mention honors. Three were drafted.
When Gonazles returned for four seasons with Dan Mullen, UF’s receivers’ production rose. Kadarius Toney went from an electric, inconsistent athlete into an all-SEC player and one of the Gators’ most prolific receivers since the Steve Spurrier era. Three other Gonzales receivers were drafted.
Gonzales’ history with the program and reputation were strong enough that Napier considered keeping him when he took over after the 2021 season. Instead, Napier hired Keary Colbert, and Gonzales joined Willie Taggart’s staff at Florida Atlantic. When Colbert left UF for the Broncos this spring, Napier allowed Gonzales to start his third stint in Gainesville.
“Great to have him back,” Napier said. “He’s hit the ground running.”
He had to, if the Gators are going to avoid a third consecutive losing season. Last year’s receiving corps was pedestrian — a glaring problem at a program that should never lack dynamic athletes. Quarterback Anthony Richardson deserved scrutiny for his 9-of-27 performance in the game at Florida State, but two of his incompletions were drops, and at least seven others hit receivers’ hands. There’s a reason Richardson said at the scouting combine that he must improve his accuracy, but he “can’t catch every pass.”
This year’s receivers won’t, either, of course. But Gonzales’ history suggests they can be more effective. Thursday night’s spring game will be our first real look at their potential.
Ricky Pearsall led the Gators with 661 yards and five touchdown catches last season and remains one of Florida’s most explosive skill players. Xzavier Henderson has been one of the spring’s most encouraging performers. The former top-100 recruit (whom Gonzales helped sign under Mullen) is inching closer to his ceiling and caught three touchdowns in a recent scrimmage.
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“He’s coming into his own at the back end of being here,” Gonzales said.
Others who are just starting are also showing flashes of promise. The Gators have raved about four-star freshman Andy Jean. Aidan Mizell, a top-120 national recruit, is arguably the fastest player on the team. Another high-end prospect, Eugene Wilson from Tampa’s Gaither High, will join before preseason camp.
It’s hard to say how much the group has grown under Gonzales, but players appreciate his energy and attention to detail.
“He likes things to a T…” said Caleb Douglas, who caught a pair of touchdowns as a freshman last year. “Ain’t no lollygagging — none of that.”
Even as Gonzales gauges intensity, he’s still learning the finer details of the playbook. That’s a product of the fact that he was hired during spring practice. He does, however, have familiarity and affinity for the program that brought him on for a third time — a program that needs him to revive the receivers room, again.
“I wear this Gator logo with great pride, and I really believe that,” Gonzales said. “You know, this is home to me, and it means a ton. … I’m more hungry than I’ve ever been to have an opportunity to be a part of a program and see it continue to go forward in the journey.”
Florida Gators spring football game
7:30 p.m. Thursday, Ben Hill Griffin Stadium
TV: ESPN+ and SEC Network+
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