Former University of Florida wide receiver and kick returner Solomon Patton wasn’t about to let anything get in the way of his NFL dream – not a combine snub or the inclement weather at his pro day that at one point, forced him to run his 40-yard dash barefoot.
“We ran inside the O’Connell Center actually,” recalled Patton, who was expecting to run on a wet field. “I had track spikes for that but had to take my spikes out so when I went to run without my spikes in, I slipped. So I rain with tennis shoes and then my last one, I ran barefoot – the fastest one.”
How fast? Some scouts had him clocked as low as 4.31, which would have put him ahead of Brandin Cooks for the top 40 among wide receivers at the combine. That, combined with crisp route running, opened the eyes of attendees, including three representatives from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who stayed with him afterwards for a closer look as a kick and punt returner.
“At first I was nervous but then I got over that, and just tried to show scouts what I can do and what they didn’t get to see me do since I didn’t go to the combine. I had definitely been waiting on that day for a minute.”
The Bucs then sent four representatives up to Gainesville for a private workout. It was Patton’s second with an NFL team. He also worked out for the New England Patriots and most recently the Atlanta Falcons. The Cleveland Browns and Chicago Bears have also shown interest. The Bucs have shown the most though.
“When the receivers coach was working me out, he was happy with how I ran my routes, how good they were, just how well I did during the workout. He mentioned, ‘Wow, you’re really in [good] shape.’ It was a good compliment coming from an NFL coach, like he sees that I’m not just ‘around,’ that I’m actually still working…Like he told me, ‘We could do some big things together. I’m hoping that we can.’”
Patton has worked meticulously to improve his route running, always looking for a way to differentiate himself from the blue chip talent that Florida is known to recruit every year. “You just try to think like, ‘I’m not going to let anybody come in here and try to take my spot.’ I was definitely fighting for a starting position every year I was there.”
He also fought through injury. In October of 2012, Patton’s junior year, he suffered a broken arm in the Gators’ 17-19 loss to Georgia, forcing him to miss the rest of the season. He worked around-the-clock to get better, opting to skip spring and summer break to remain in Gainesville and rehab.
“Honestly, I didn’t even go home. I just stayed at the school and worked out, just trying to get better…Any breaks they gave us – for summer, after spring football – any breaks that gave us a chance to go home I never went home.”
It paid off. He finally got his opportunity to start in 2013. He caught 44 passes for 556 receiving yards and six touchdowns and was named team MVP with 1,269 all-purpose yards. He put up 118 receiving yards against Miami and 124 receiving yards against Arkansas.
He set a single-season school record with a 29.2-yard average on kick returns, including a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Missouri. His career kickoff return average of 27.7 yards on 39 returns set a school record for players with 30 or more returns.
“Trust me, I’d been working hard my junior year and all the other years, but I finally got my shot so I took advantage of it.”
He did the same thing in the Medal of Honor Bowl, catching three passes for 50 receiving yards, rushing for 33 yards and returning a kickoff for 15 yards. He was named the game’s MVP, earning him a late invite to the Senior Bowl where he got to return to his hometown of Mobile.
He was not invited to the NFL Scouting Combine in February, but he continued to train in Boca Raton for his pro day, working out alongside Anquan Boldin, who only helped reaffirm his commitment to route running.
“He told me, ‘I’m not that fast.’ But he just finds a way to get open and finds separation. That’s what it’s all about at the next level, just getting separation.”
Although in Patton’s case, speed certainly helps, much in the way it’s helped former Gators and Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Percy Harvin, someone Patton always tried to emulate, along with Desean Jackson and Tavon Austin.
“When I was recruited, [Percy] was the one person, I watched his highlights like all the time. Like every day, I watched his highlights.”
He also looked up to former Gators running back and kick returner Jeff Demps, who’s now with the Buccaneers. “He is definitely someone I would watch when I wasn’t in the game and he was in. Just watching him, whenever he’d get the ball, he was always bound to make something happen.”
Aside from perfecting his route running and honing his speed, the greatest lesson Patton’s taken from this entire process has been patience, something he’ll need between now and when the NFL Draft kicks off a week from Thursday.
“It’s definitely nerve-wracking. Like I told my parents, ‘I’m just waiting for the day to come.’ It’s just crazy because you’re just really in a hole right now and you don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s just like a waiting game. You just work out, then wait.”
But just like the broken arm, and finally getting an opportunity to start at Florida and getting a late invite to the Senior Bowl, hopefully this wait will be worth it too.