Florida Gators’ trio of WRs will look to continue strong production vs. vulnerable LSU secondary

The University of Florida used to be known as a hot spot for dynamic receivers, but the Gators’ wealth of talent at the position seemed to dry up over the past few seasons.

“Since I’ve been here, that’s all I’ve heard about: We didn’t have any receivers that could catch or make the big plays that guys used to make,” said receiver Solomon Patton, a senior who made minimal impact in his first three years.

That appears to be changing, though the shift is so subtle and gradual that it is easy to overlook. No. 17 Florida still lacks an overwhelming playmaker who dwells in the nightmares of opposing cornerbacks, but the Gators are getting solid and sufficient production from a trio of receivers who had been fairly quiet until now.

Patton, Trey Burton and Quinton Dunbar — all three unlikely to win any national awards — have combined for an average of 180.8 yards in the first five games and will give No. 10 LSU’s defense a lot to keep track of when the teams meet at Tiger Stadium on Saturday (3:30 p.m., CBS).

They are each over 270 yards so far, led by Patton at 348, which makes Florida one of 10 teams in the nation with three receivers at that mark or higher. They have accounted for 89.8 percent of the Gators’ passing yardage.

Last season, Dunbar led the receivers with 36 catches and 383 yards. He, Burton and Patton are each on track to exceed that receptions total and at least double the yardage for Florida (4-1, 3-0 SEC) this year. All three came to UF in 2010 — Burton and Patton are seniors; Dunbar is a redshirt junior — and are having their best seasons yet.

“We all mature differently,” coach Will Muschamp said. “We all want it to happen when they’re freshmen in their first game, but that’s not always the way it happens. I’ve been extremely proud of those guys.”

This week, they will run into a vulnerable LSU secondary. The Tigers (5-1, 2-1) have given up 258 passing yards per game in SEC play, which ranks seventh in the conference.

Patton has proven to be the Gators’ most dangerous weapon in the passing game with 348 yards on 19 catches. His average of 18.3 yards per reception is seventh in the conference and ranks in the top 40 nationally.

He has helped produce six of UF’s 12 longest pass plays this season, including touchdowns of 52, 51, 38 and 21 yards. He set career highs with six catches for 118 yards and a touchdown against Miami in Week 2, then topped that game with six for 124 and two TDs against Arkansas over the weekend.

It’s a stunning turnaround for a player who last season did little outside of running jet sweeps before suffering a broken arm in the Georgia game. He had eight catches in his first three years at Florida.

Muschamp challenged Patton in the recent offseason by asking, “Do you want to just be a jet sweep guy or do you want to be a major contributor to our football team?” Patton appears to have opted for the latter and is on pace for 905 yards, which would be the most by a Florida receiver since Dallas Baker in 2006.

“He had an outstanding offseason,” UF quarterback Tyler Murphy said. “Every time I came to the stadium, I’d see him either watching film or catching. He was always there. It’s really starting to pay off.”

Dunbar has 18 catches for 274 yards, putting him on target to far exceed last year’s numbers. His best game this season was a seven-catch, 98-yard afternoon against Miami.

Burton seems to have benefited from the staff streamlining his role and using him mostly as a slot receiver. He has played five offensive positions, worked on special teams and was considered for a move to safety at one point.

In the slot, he became the favorite target of starting quarterback Jeff Driskel, who sustained a broken leg in the third game of the year, and has been reliable for Murphy. He accounted for 12 of Driskel’s 42 completions and 11 of Murphy’s 39. He has a team-high 23 catches for 282 yards and a TD and is on pace for 60 receptions. No UF player has broken 50 since 2009.