Antonio Gandy-Golden still manages to find a way to leave fans, opposing coaches and even those who see him on a daily basis speechless with what he does Saturdays on the gridiron.
Here are a few for example: This past weekend against Virginia, the Liberty senior leaped and snared a pass from quarterback Buckshot Calvert with only his right hand for a touchdown as the rain began falling at Scott Stadium.
Two weeks prior, Calvert found Gandy-Golden along the sideline, and the 6-foot-4 receiver hauled in the catch in front of two defenders while getting his toes inbounds to extend the drive.
One month ago, the 220-pound Gandy-Golden beat a Rutgers cornerback off the line of scrimmage, kept running while his jersey was being grabbed and snagged the pass with his left hand before falling into the end zone for another score.
Each instance solicited oohs and aahs from the home crowd seeing the dynamic wide receiver in person for the first time this season. Those highlight-reel receptions, along with a consistent ability to win battles he hadn’t won in previous seasons, have made Gandy-Golden a household name as he inches closer to a future at the next level.
“I feel like they’re taking a lot more notice now, just based off the numbers I’ve put up this year,” Gandy-Golden said after a practice last week. “I always felt like I was just going to have to work hard. Luckily we’re blessed with this coaching staff that we have this year just to help elevate my game and this team’s game so much. I couldn’t do it without them or the team either at all. The other coaches have helped us. They’ve all worked together to help us be in the position we need to be in.”
Gandy-Golden has emerged as one of the nation’s top wide receivers in a breakout senior season. He ranks second in the nation with 1,304 receiving yards, has accepted an invitation to the Senior Bowl and was one of 12 semifinalists for the Biletnikoff Award. He is also one of three FBS wide receivers to surpass the 1,000-yard mark in each of the past two seasons (Minnesota’s Tyler Johnson and SMU’s James Proche are the others).
His evolution coincides with the Hugh Freeze-led coaching staff focusing on ensuring he has all the tools necessary to not only dominate at this level but excel in the NFL.
“AGG has phenomenal talent. I think he’s reminded me always be teachable,” Freeze said recently. “When I came in, his deal was, well, he can’t get off press coverage. That’s what I heard from this, this, the NFL scouts, or whatever. We went to work on that. He’s still not perfect at it, but he’s a lot better [now]. ... He’s been hungry to be teachable.”
The releases at the line of scrimmage, the precise route running and the ability to break tackles and tack on yards after contact are all the product of the three different receivers coaches he’s had during his four seasons at Liberty.
Ron Brown, the coach his freshman season, instilled a mantra of toughness, and Gandy-Golden’s physique frequently allows him to ward off smaller defenders and often carry cornerbacks for extra yards.
His position coach for two seasons, Kyle DeArmon, focused on perfecting his route running and technique so he could win battles at any spot on the field. Those lessons are seen on back-shoulder catches, double-moves and winning 50-50 balls on fade routes.
Maurice Harris, who has been Gandy-Golden’s position coach for less than a year, focused solely on the little details — like the release at the line of scrimmage — to help the receiver win battles against the better cornerbacks he faced this season.
“He always says the small things matter most, and that’s honestly the truth,” Gandy-Golden said of what Harris has taught him. “ … He’s really harped on those things, and it’s just elevated me totally.”
Gandy-Golden enters his final game at Williams Stadium (2 p.m. Saturday against New Mexico State) as the program leader in receptions (231), receiving yards (3,722) and receiving touchdowns (32), and he needs 76 receiving yards to own the record for most yards in a season to surpass Darrin Peterson’s mark of 1,379 set in 2014.
His gaudy numbers have been generated with Calvert each step of the way. Their relationship dates back to the Summer Bridge program in 2016 when they were roommates for those few weeks, and that rapport developed in a friendship the two said will last for the remainder of their lives.
“He means a lot to me,” Calvert said. “Like a brother, somebody that’s always been there for me; somebody that I can turn to and call whenever just about anything I can talk to him. He’s a guy that is a great listener, great dude that gives good advice. He’s just been a great impact in my life, not just on the field but off the field just helping me grow to be a better person and strive to be somebody like him.”
While Calvert had offers from FBS programs out of high school (South Florida being the most prominent), Gandy-Golden did not hold an FBS offer while at Paulding County High School in Dallas, Georgia.
Now, Gandy-Golden is on the doorstep of a future in the NFL. Freeze recently said the wideout is an “NFL player,” and CBS Sports ranks him the 10th best college wide receiver.
“It’s kind of been hitting me a little bit more these past few weeks, but I still haven’t really looked at it too much,” Gandy-Golden said. “I’ve tried to stay in the moment, stay in this present time; this team right here needs me. Just focusing on these guys … and trying to go to a bowl game and make history here.”
Damien Sordelett covers Liberty University athletics and local golf for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5550.