This summer, SkullKing Sports will be taking a closer look at recently drafted players. In this edition we had a chance to chat with Maurice Harris, Antonio Gandy-Golden’s wide receiver coach at Liberty University. Harris graciously let us in on his time with Gandy-Golden sharing his strengths, initial weaknesses, and provided a new perspective on his journey to the NFL.
Big Talent in Lynchburg, VA – FCS Years
During his time at Paulding County High School in Dallas, GA, Antonio Gandy-Golden flew mostly under the radar. Coming into high school he was 5’9” and up until his senior year he was garnering attention from mainly FCS schools. That all changed when a timely growth spurt transformed him to a dominant 6’3” entering his senior year. In showcasing incredible size and catching ability, Gandy-Golden began fielding interest from ACC and SEC schools at the 11th hour. However, in an interesting turn of events, Gandy-Golden decided not to attend summer camps or run the 40-yard dash for power 5 schools to evaluate. As a result no official offers were made, they were skeptical of his official speed. This led the high school senior to his final college choices: Elon, Kennesaw State, and Liberty.
Gandy-Golden chose to set up shop in Lynchburg, VA in what many saw as a major coup for Liberty. The private evangelical Christian university is world renowned for its dedication to religious tenets, not so much for collegiate football. Despite its lack of tradition and exposure, Gandy-Golden saw structure and opportunity. So began his illustrious career, one which would etch him in the Liberty record books.
After a respectable freshman season in which he completed all 11 games at wide receiver, Gandy-Golden jumped on the scene at the FCS level. In 2017 he garnered All-Big South honors with 1,066 yards and 69 receptions, which were also top marks in the conference. Highlighting the sophomore campaign was a win in Waco, TX against Baylor. Gandy-Golden was dominant with 13 catches for 192 yards and two touchdowns.
FBS Transition and New Coaching Staff
In 2018 Liberty made the jump to the FBS pool, hoping to establish a respectable brand of football as an Independent. Similar to programs like Notre Dame, BYU, and UMass, this allowed freedom in scheduling, often resulting in bigger and better competition. This was an opportunity Gandy-Golden seized. In his Junior year, Gandy-Golden faced the likes of New Mexico, New Mexico State, UMass, and Idaho State. All of which he lit up for over 100 yards each. Against UMass and New Mexico he had over 200 yards. Showing he could dominate at a higher level set the scene for what would be a jaw-dropping senior season.
Joining Gandy-Golden in 2019 would be Hugh Freeze and select members of his staff from Ole Miss. One of whom was long time associate and position coach Maurice Harris. Maurice knew a thing or two about elite level receivers. Having coached the likes of AJ Brown, DJ Metcalf, Laquon Treadwell, and Donte Montcrief, he saw similar talent in Gandy-Golden. “He’s a huge target with a huge catch radius. Big, physical, strong, and will mix it up in the run game,” Harris said of Gandy-Golden. Coupled with his physical tools and the elite level coaching Antonio enjoyed major success in 2019. Leading Liberty to an 8-5 record, Gandy-Golden also amassed 79 catches for 1,396 yards and 10 touchdowns. Most of that production came against elite level competition (Syracuse 119 yards, Buffalo 174 yards, BYU 172 yards), comparatively speaking. Gandy-golden finished his career with the Flames as the all time leader in yards (3,814) and touchdowns (33). He then realized his professional dreams being selected in the 4th Round by the Washington Redskins.
Making Use of Physical Tools
Despite having success in 2017 and 2018, there existed a few areas in Antonio’s game to sharpen before he could reach the heights of his senior campaign. Listed at 6’4”, 223 lbs., it is no surprise that he could make his mark as a “go and get it” possession based receiver. Coach Harris saw that in order to get Antonio in the best positions, he would need to be more effective off the line. “In 2018 we saw that a lot of DBs would be able to get in his chest,” Harris said. Coming into the 2019 season Harris’ job was to help Gandy-Golden become a vertical threat every series. “From a skill set standpoint, he did a really good job of working on his releases this season…we started with his stance, and we corrected that.” What followed was a more consistent display of this contested catch ability. Establishing initial separation from corner backs was paramount to his 2019 production and his final draft position.
The biggest draw to Antonio’s game is undoubtedly his size. Coach Harris believes this is Gandy-Golden’s greatest asset and will translate seamlessly to the NFL. “His catch radius, his ability to make 50-50 catches,” replied Harris when asked what Antonio would bring to the NFL. “If a ball is being thrown his way, when it is in the air, you feel very confident that he’s going to catch it when he’s in one on one coverage.”
Gandy-Golden possesses a motor to compliment his frame. In many instances he showcased an ability to switch gears after catches, surprising defensive backs with unpredictable elusiveness. “He does have the ability to stop and start pretty quickly,” said Harris. When asked if there was an instance when this ability stood out most Harris replied instantly;“When we played against Syracuse it probably was the first drive of the series he caught a slant and took it 50 yards and broke about 4 tackles along the way.” Combining an unpredictable burst of speed with his imposing size is almost nuclear against unassuming defenses. “With him being a big receiver and strong, once a guy gets a hold of him he’s tough to bring down.”
The Intangibles that Make a Professional
Entering his senior year with a new coaching staff is never an easy ask. In some instances it can derail a career, decimate any momentum from seasons past. In Antonio’s case it was another challenge, something he never shies away from. Before talking on-field production, Coach Harris couldn’t help but brag about Antonio’s character and work ethic; “One thing I’ll say about Antonio is that he wants to be coached. He wants you to develop him to the best he can possibly be and he takes to the coaching, even when you have to say some stern words to him.” Gandy-Golden is very respectful of the craft and the process you have to go through in order to improve. “He asks plenty of questions in the class, meeting room before where we meet before practice. He’s always asking questions on the field as well, or giving input.” Interested in not only helping himself and his teammates, he believed the onus is on him to help his coaches as well. “I like that because he may see something that we’re not seeing because he’s actually in the battle,” said Coach Harris when referring to Gandy-Golden’s input during games.
While a far cry from a football crazed town, Lynchburg had a new favorite son. Antonio took all the attention and media scrutiny in stride, always focused on being the best teammate possible. “This year (2019) he always seemed like one of the guys. He was always the highlight of the jokes and he always made people feel comfortable. He went out of his way to make people feel comfortable and he would also hold guys accountable,” said Harris.
The level of competition varied for Gandy-Golden during his time in Lynchburg. He was able to produce at a high level no matter the name on the uniform. When asked what game Coach Harris began to see Antonio as not only an FBS talent, but an NFL talent he shared with us that Buffalo was a real turning point. “I would say the Buffalo game stood out the most. The way he just destroyed those DBs in the first half was incredible. That’s when I knew this kid, coupled with the Syracuse game has NFL potential.”
Coach Harris believes he can see when a mental switch is flipped which separates a college player from a professional. In his one year with Antonio, Harris believes he saw this attribute. “I think he took on more of a pro-mindset this season (2019). Coming from my previous stops we had young men that wanted to go the NFL. We’re talking AJ Brown, DJ Metcalf, Laquon Treadwell, and Donte Montcrief when we were at Ole Miss. He (Antonio) took on more of that mindset.” In my conversation with Coach Harris one quote stood out to me more than any: “Some kids it goes one of two ways; you can fight against it or embrace it. He embraced it.”
Antonio Gandy-Golden has established himself as one of the cant-miss receiver prospects. His impact in Washington will likely be seen his rookie season given his refined character and playmaking potential.