Opening night for new Florida Gators quarterback Emory Jones started off fine. After the first two drives, nobody thought there would be a QB controversy by the end of the night.
Then more time elapsed, more plays unfolded, and now there is a quarterback controversy- one that’s taking the Gator Nation by storm.
Florida scored touchdowns on its first two possessions and while Jones did miss a few throws, he was moving the ball and leading the offense down the field. On the third offensive drive, as what looked to be scripted, Florida brought in redshirt freshman Anthony Richardson for a drive of his own.
Richardson led the team down inside the red zone before running the ball down to the FAU 7 and having his helmet come off. Since he had to come off for a play, it should have been an easy transition for starter Jones to come in and clean up the drive. But then the adventure began.
Instead, Jones entered the game and promptly earned a delay of game penalty, resulting in 3rd and 7 rather than 3rd and 2, and subsequently threw an interception as a result of being late with his read- and off-target to boot. That third offensive drive seemed to be a turning point for Emory Jones in the game.
While the play calling did seem conservative or “vanilla”, Jones should have been able to have his way with a much less talented FAU team in a Dan Mullen schemed offense. Let’s call it how it is: Jones was off most of the evening. There were whispers in spring and fall camp that Jones was having issues with accuracy, as well as getting through his progressions quickly, and making confident decisions.
That is exactly what I saw in person at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on Saturday night.
Jones was late, inaccurate (lots of throws low, especially), and he seemed hesitant to pull the trigger on throws that were there. He finished 17/27 for 113 yards (just 4.2 YPA), a touchdown, and two bad interceptions in which he stared down his first target and threw it there despite the FAU DB’s reading it the whole way. His QBR (quarterback rating) was 56.1, which is not going to win games in the SEC. And most of his struggles came after his first interception.
Then there’s Anthony Richardson.
Richardson is a physical specimen, listed at 6’4” and roughly 240 pounds. He is also a freak athlete, with great speed and strength. In his four drives at QB in the game, he seemed to possess a swagger and confidence that his counterpart was not playing with. If I didn’t know the Florida team and you told me Richardson was the starter, I would absolutely believe you; that is how confident he looked.
The Gainesville native ended up running for 160 yards off just seven carries, including a 73-yard TD run and a SportsCenter top- 10 worthy play where he juked a player, broke a tackle, and hurdled a man. He only finished 3/8 passing after hitting his first three passes, but he was mostly trying to throw deep balls to backup wide receivers and did have a couple of drops. According to ESPN, he had a 99.9 QBR.
So while neither lit it up on the stat sheet, the tape clearly favored the Florida Gators quarterback listed second on the depth chart- leading to an age-old problem for Gator fans.
The backup quarterback has always been one of the most popular players on any given team, and 2021 appears to be no exception. Hell, even in 2020, there were calls to bench Kyle Trask in favor of Emory Jones before Trask started lighting up the scoreboard. So I do want to caution readers that I am aware of that, and trying not to fall into that trap. And it does seem I am hyping up Richardson and bashing Emory Jones, but I want to set the record straight: I want nothing more than for Emory Jones to succeed.
In a perfect world, Jones has a Cam Newton type season in 2021, becomes a first round pick, Richardson starts next year and is the future star of the program. The Florida Gators quarterback line of succession couldn’t possibly be better off if that comes to fruition, in my mind. So I am chalking this subpar performance for Jones up to growing pains, making his first start as a Gator, and just not trusting himself enough. I truly believe if Jones gets his confidence up, he can be elite. He has been in the system for four years now, and for all his struggles, he did prove to be an elite athlete by rushing for 74 yards on 10 carries.
We also must take into account that Richardson is playing with virtually no pressure on him as the backup. If he succeeds, he is ahead of schedule and entices fans as the future. If he fails, he is just a freshman and will learn. Emory does not have the luxury of any sort of failure, as fans in Gainesville have the shortest leashes for quarterbacks in comparison to any other school I have seen- and besides, you know, he’s been here for four years now.
We heard so much praise and hype for Richardson over the offseason, including from coach Dan Mullen himself- and here’s where it’s worth noting that Mullen normally does not hype up his quarterbacks much. After Saturday, we can all see why.
But I think it’s at least one game too early to start calling for a change for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it was just the first game of the year. Both quarterbacks are great athletes with an ability to run and big arms, but as Dan Mullen said in his presser Monday, Emory Jones is still the Florida Gators quarterback. And then there’s the obvious disclaimer that, as we’ve seen in the past, Dan Mullen has a Steve Spurrier-esque tendency to give both QB’s sufficient playing time- so one way or another, we can expect to see Anthony Richardson log some meaningful snaps both on Saturday and moving forward.
On the other hand, with Alabama coming to visit in less than two weeks, Emory Jones will need to step up for his first road start against South Florida Saturday. There’s no way around that. Dan Mullen’s stubbornness with personnel that seems to hold him back has been long documented, and if Jones struggles again and Mullen still refuses to make a change, he might begin to teeter toward the territory of risking his own success as a head coach with his stubbornness.
Here is hoping Emory can dominate, quiet the outside noise, and make things easier for Mullen and the Gators on Saturday.