‘Spark­ing up the team’

Cleve­land con­tent mak­ing his mark on spe­cial teams

Orlando Sentinel - - SPORTS FRIDAY - By Mor­gan McMullen

Tyrie Cleve­land’s face lit up when he heard the ques­tions. He was asked in late Septem­ber how he felt see­ing Florida’s other re­ceivers be­gin­ning their sea­sons with a high vol­ume of tar­gets.

Some re­ceivers would bris­tle at di­vided at­ten­tion on of­fense. But this 6-foot-2 speed­ster hap­pily shared the spot­light.

“He’s spark­ing up the pro­gram, spark­ing up the team and the re­ceiv­ing group,” Cleve­land raved about Fred­die Swain.

“I love it when he gets the ball,” Cleve­land boasted about Kadar­ius Toney.

That’s Cleve­land boiled down to his essence. His coaches and team­mates all de­scribe him as one of the most metic­u­lous work­ers on the UF re­ceiv­ing corps.

“Prob­a­bly the most fun to watch as a coach is how he has ma­tured with his work ethic,” said Matt Ker­stet­ter, Cleve­land’s high school of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor.

Ker­stet­ter and Cleve­land keep up reg­u­larly through texts and phone calls. Ker­stet­ter said his for­mer pupil re­al­ized in his ju­nior year of high school that Cleve­land needed to work on more as­pects of his game out­side of his blaz­ing speed.

That mind­set has helped Cleve­land ad­just to­ward a more well-rounded skillset. His spe­cial teams con­tri­bu­tions, in par­tic­u­lar, stand out. He holds a start­ing spot on the punt cover­age squad, a unit UF coach Dan Mullen has called one of the most im­por­tant on the team.

He doesn’t wear a dour at­ti­tude when he trots out to cover punts. He doesn’t sulk about mak­ing plays on the other side of the ball.

A re­porter re­cently asked Cleve­land how fun it was to be in a hud­dle with Mullen call­ing plays. It wasn’t meant to be about Mullen’s ten­den­cies on spe­cial teams, but he re­sponded with­out hes­i­ta­tion.

“We had a, I can’t say the name of it, but it was a fake punt,” Cleve­land said. “I was very ex­cited for [punter Tommy Townsend] to get it and get us a first down.

"I’m just try­ing to take pride in spe­cial teams, be­cause spe­cial teams wins ball­games. I try to come out ev­ery day and work my butt off on spe­cial teams and just give it my all.”

The move has paid off for both Cleve­land and the Ga­tors (6-3, 4-3 SEC). His ef­forts on punt cover­age have yielded plenty of game-chang­ing, field-flip­ping mo­ments for his team.

Against then-No. 5 LSU in Week 6, Cleve­land made con­sec­u­tive sig­nif­i­cant plays on UF punts. His tackle on the Tigers’ re­turn man re­sulted in a 2-yard loss dur­ing LSU’s first punt re­turn. He then forced a fair catch with his pres­ence at the LSU 5-yard line dur­ing the Tigers’ sec­ond punt re­turn op­por­tu­nity.

Fol­low­ing a three-and­out from LSU, Florida marched 43 yards for the game-ty­ing touch­down.

“It’s just come out and just make plays for my team in a dif­fer­ent way other than on of­fense,” Cleve­land said. “I just come in, prac­tice and try to work on my tech­nique, and when game time comes, just make a play.”

Cleve­land’s self­less­ness also shines through in his will­ing­ness to help chil­dren. He par­tic­i­pated in the 13th an­nual Bran­don Ling Me­mo­rial Sports Camp in Oc­to­ber, which gives kids who’ve been di­ag­nosed with cancer an af­ter­noon of fun games and ac­tiv­i­ties.

“It was very fun to come out with the kids and just take a break from foot­ball and just come out and sup­port those guys,” Cleve­land said. “And just have fun and throw the foot­ball around with them and just talk to them about life. … As an ath­lete, kids look up to you.”

Cleve­land said he never had that in­spi­ra­tion grow­ing up in Jack­sonville and Hous­ton. He said he hopes to use his plat­form now — and in the fu­ture — to help chil­dren who need a role model.

“Giv­ing back. I’ve al­ways liked that, and I al­ways had a pas­sion for that since I was lit­tle,” he said. “… Hope­fully one day I can build me a cen­ter for kids just to give back. I just love the youth.”

That pas­sion should serve him well Satur­day against South Carolina (5-3, 4-3 SEC). The No. 15 Ga­tors and Game­cocks face off at noon and the game will air on ESPN.

“I just like to com­pete and go out there and try to make plays and do some­thing dif­fer­ent then play­ing like a re­ceiver,” Cleve­land said. “So as punt, as gun­ner, try­ing to get down there and make a tackle for punt re­turn.”

JOHN RAOUX/AP South Carolina at UF

Tyrie Cleve­land catches the win­ning 63-yard TD pass vs. Ten­nessee on Sept. 16, 2017. Noon Satur­day, ESPN

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