Anthony Richardson can flat-out play: Here are 3 ways Florida can help him this offseason
Florida wrapped up spring football last week with a lopsided Orange and Blue game that showcased the program’s greatest strengths entering 2022 and its biggest potential weaknesses.
The defense looked vastly improved, comfortable with the new scheme of defensive coordinator Patrick Toney and consistently swarming the football. Florida has a chance to be special in the secondary and should be much stronger up the middle thanks to a more experienced Gervon Dexter and the return of All-SEC middle linebacker Ventrell Miller from injury.
Meanwhile, the offense will feature one of the deepest running back rooms in the country, with an assortment of blue-chip talent battling it out for playing time. Each of Florida’s four primary running backs has a different skill set as well, meaning this room isn’t just deep, it’s diverse. That’s a weapon for Billy Napier to exploit in Year 1.
Finally, there’s Anthony Richardson.
The rising sophomore quarterback looked splendid in the spring game, reading progressions quickly, throwing more accurately than he has in his time on campus, and finally looking fit and healthy after a 2-year slog with a leg injury that lingered from his high school days. Richardson’s upside is All-SEC and All-American special. Ask anyone who saw this throw last year:
I still keep coming back to this Anthony Richardson throw from last yearpic.twitter.com/H50FKm7Mit
— Cam Mellor (@CamMellor) April 15, 2022
Richardson is everything you want in a modern quarterback: big, tall and rocket-armed with a high football IQ and the type of athleticism that stresses defenses from sideline to sideline:
Anthony Richardson puts a ton of stress on defenses and makes you defend every inch of the field. pic.twitter.com/hjC1X2LAaf
— Felix Sharpe (@sharpereview) October 17, 2021
Even the best quarterbacks need a supporting cast.
A great running game is a good place for Florida to start. A solid defense that is going to get stops and get Richardson the football in fewer “score or else” situations in 2022 also will help.
But Florida showed some warts in the spring, notably the lack of depth across the bulk of the roster. The Gators have probably 30 players who are ready to contribute to winning SEC football. That’s a solid number, but once injuries hit, will it be enough? And Florida is in desperate need of help in the passing game, as evidenced by a lackluster spring from the resident tight ends and wide receivers. Winning the biggest games is always a matter of 2 or 3 plays or 2 or 3 players who can do something the other team can’t do. Who are those guys for Florida? They need to find out this offseason.
Here are 3 things the Gators can do this offseason to give their scintillating young quarterback a chance to have a special 2022 season.
Hit the portal and upgrade the production of the wide receiver room
Notice here that we use the word “production,” not talent.
By recruiting rankings metrics, Florida’s wide receiver room has plenty of talent. The Gators’ most productive returning receiver is Justin Shorter, a former 5-star. Xzavier Henderson was a high 4-star who chose the Gators over Alabama. Daejon Reynolds was a high 4-star recruited by every major program in the SEC. The list goes on.
But all spring, only Shorter and Trent Whittemore, a 3-star out of Gainesville recruited primarily as an athlete, were consistently open.
The other issue with the receivers is too many are the same type of player. Other 4-star talents, Ja’Quavion Fraziars and Marcus Burke, are big-bodied guys who can win a 50-50. But that’s precisely what Shorter is. There’s not a guy, outside Henderson who is explosive. That’s a problem.
Florida may not find a ready-made game breaker in the portal in April. There are only 2 remaining 4-star WRs who haven’t committed — and both are projected as 100% locks at other schools. But the Gators need to find a player or preferably 2 who have produced at the collegiate level. Richardson can’t be throwing into tiny windows all year, betting on players to win 50/50 balls or muscle their way for extra yards. That’s not a winning formula.
Find depth at tight end and use it
Billy Napier was bullish on Florida’s tight ends after spring camp, an interesting and refreshing take given Florida’s injuries at the position and the fact that Napier has been candid about the deficiencies of his roster this spring.
A big reason for Napier’s optimism is the play of Dante Zanders, who converted to tight end from the defensive line to add depth this spring and came out of the Orange and Blue game as one of the spring’s biggest surprises.
“You can see where (Zanders) has a bright future,” Napier said after the spring. “I can’t compliment him enough. He’s been the story of the spring.”
Florida needed that kind of story at a skill position after it lost 3 of the program’s scholarship tight ends in less than a week of spring practice. Zanders, who can block well at 260 pounds, is also an effective pass catcher with nice open field speed. He will join Keon Zipperer, Nick Elksnis and Jonathan Odom to give Florida a host of options.
With fewer explosive playmakers on the perimeter, Florida may need to rely on RPOs to tight ends to find explosives in the fall. Richardson ran RPOs beautifully in the spring game, leading touchdown drives on 4 of his first 5 possessions against the first-team defense. He finished the spring game 9-of-10 in RPO concepts, showing a mastery of the playbook given the short time he’s had to acclimate.
With Zanders and Zipperer, Florida has two different types of looks it can show defenses at tight end, and the Gators need to spend the offseason scheming creative ways to use both, as well as Elksnis, a mismatch nightmare who will have a chance to break out as a redshirt freshman.
Special teams needs a big summer
Before you write this off as boring copy, consider this: In Year 1 of the Dan Mullen era, Florida’s special teams ranked 4th in S&P+ efficiency. Their punter was All-SEC, the kicker was marvelous, and Florida gave up the fewest yards in the SEC on punt returns.
In the final year of the Mullen era, Florida’s special teams ranked an abysmal 97th.
Does some of that have to do with the departure of Cincinnati Bengals rookie turned postseason legend Evan McPherson? Absolutely. The Gators were always going to take a step back in the kicking game after McPherson left. But Florida was not great in the punting game either, as Jeremy Crawshaw’s 44.1-yard average ranked just 60th in college football and the Gators ranked 11th in the SEC in net punting average, meaning that even when Crawshaw hit a boomer, Florida didn’t cover it well.
Special teams is one of the few things you can really grind away at on the field all summer.
Chris Howard and the Florida kickers can work at being more consistent. Crawshaw can work to improve the placement of his rugby-style boots or the hangtime of his punts. And the Gators, as a group, have a summer and a fall to find guys who want to impact winning covering kickoffs and playing with the punt team.
This is a staff that pays close attention to details. That’s critical because SEC games are won at the margins. It’s the little things, especially when teams have largely equitable talent, which will be the case in Florida’s games against Utah, Tennesseee, Kentucky, Missouri and Florida State in 2022. It’s even more essential in games where Florida will be the clearly less talented group: LSU, Georgia, Texas A&M.
If the Gators want to overachieve and threaten the 10-win mark in 2022, they’ll need to be vastly improved on special teams. That work begins this summer.