Wherever the needle was projected to land on the Florida Gators’ 2016 Wheel of Fortune, it just moved a notch closer to the free trip for Atlanta. Jim McElwain’s team just became a strong candidate for a 10-win season in 2016 with the news that wide receiver Antonio Callaway has been cleared to play.
The Gators should be the favorite to win the SEC East. And, yes, I think Callaway’s presence makes that much difference. Ask the Tennessee Vols.
Callaway's "victory" in a school hearing, where he was found "not responsible” of alleged sexual misconduct charges, may have been bigger than his TD reception on a fourth-and-14 play with 1:26 to play that beat Tennessee last season. This one was more like fourth-down-and-September.
If McElwain gets out of quarterback Luke Del Rio what he expects, Florida's offense will be vastly improved – even if the past-performance numbers don't indicate that. Del Rio just has to do his job and not try to carry the offense.
Ordinarily, fans wouldn't get geeked up about a quarterback who has yet to complete his first pass as a Gator and a wide receiver who caught 35 balls for 678 yards and four touchdown passes last season. But this could be one of the top passing combinations in the SEC.
The long ball is now back in play. Every opposing defensive coordinator must now begin by game-planning first on how to deal with No. 81. He is the most exciting offensive weapon on Florida's roster, if not the entire SEC East, because of his game-breaking skills. And I predict he will have an even bigger year in 2016 because he has a quarterback who can get the ball to him.
In translatable terms for football, this is really, really good news for Florida.
When you add in Callaway's skills as a punt returner and his all-purpose yardage of 435, we're talking about a 1,000-yard contributor. For an offense that disappeared in the final three games last season, that's a monstrous addition.
I know a lot of people are throwing darts at Del Rio with such labels as “not an SEC starter,” etc. But McElwain doesn't need Chad Kelly's arm to make his system work. And I've seen enough to know that Del Rio fits his system, can deliver the ball on time and has excellent knowledge of the offense. Can he be successful against SEC competition? We'll see. I think he can.
Don't judge Callaway by his 2015 numbers. Remember, Treon Harris probably threw a dozen ground balls and a like number of other off-target passes toward Callaway last season.
McElwain and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier developed heartburn from seeing Florida receivers running free in the secondary who were invisible to the now-departed Harris.
That's the football part of the Callaway story. But we are left scratching our heads about the Title IX case in which Callaway was charged with violating three UF student code-of-conduct rules: causing physical injury or endangering another's health or safety; sexual assault; and sexual misconduct.
The stigma of sexual misconduct looms darkly over all college football, but we do know that the first round of the Callaway issue has been resolved for now.
If you read between the lines of the statement by Callaway's attorney, Huntley Johnson, it's easy to predict that there is a key piece of evidence in the possession of Gainesville law Johnson & Osteryoung, P.A. that most likely would speak to future legal battles.
There could be numerous legal maneuvers remaining, so attorney Johnson wasn't willing to reveal much when I spoke with him Friday afternoon. "Just say you spoke to me," Johnson said, "and there is more to come."
While Johnson declined to say what "more" was – understandably so because of legal liability – he also suggested I go to a site where I could read the "order" from the hearing officer. I did so and it was clear to me that there is some evidence he could unleash if needed. The attorney for the complainant, John Clune, said afterward that his client had no current plans to file further suits, criminal or civil.
Meanwhile, there is the black eye that comes with the whole sordid image of sexual misconduct on campuses by football players. Cleared or not, Callaway's image took a hit from his testimony in defense of his claim that "I was so stoned I had no interest in having sex with anyone."
That sounds a little like a criminal saying, "I couldn't have robbed a bank at that time because I was out in the street stealing purses from little old ladies."
So there could be future football-rated discipline from McElwain, who told the media "obviously I'm not happy" about the involvement of his two players.
In his behalf, hearing officer Jake Schickel – a questionable choice as a hearing officer because of his Gator Boosters membership – said Callaway was "honest, sincere, and presented himself well." That is more than you can say about Callaway's conduct off the field.
What may have been a win for Gators football on the scoreboard was not exactly something to be hailed by a hearty round of "We Are the Boys from Old Florida."
(You can follow Buddy Martin on Twitter @buddyshow)
© 2016, Buddy Martin. All rights reserved.
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