Better or worse? Previewing Florida's offense in 2022
As miserable as Florida’s 2022 campaign was from a record standpoint, the Gators were efficient and effective offensively.
The Gators finished 12th in yards per play nationally at 6.6 yards per snap, with only national champion and rival Georgia better in the SEC. Florida placed 23rd in SP+ offensive efficiency, good for 6th-best in the SEC, and were 21st in success rate offensively, good for 5th in the league. Those numbers were all a decline from 2020, when Florida led the nation in passing offense, finished 3rd in total offense and yards per play and 4th in SP+ offense, but the drop-off wasn’t as precipitous as some imagined given the departure of Heisman finalist Kyle Trask, All-American Kyle Pitts and first-round draft pick Kadarius Toney to the NFL, among others.
None of that was enough to save the Gators from the program’s 3rd losing season in the past 9 years and another head coaching change. The Gators are now on their 5th head coach, excluding interims, since 2010. That’s immense turnover for a program that dominated the league throughout the 1990s and 2000s, and the lack of any real stability is a big reason the Gators still find themselves on the outside looking in when it comes to staying relevant in the national conversation for more than a season at a time.
Will Billy Napier’s offense be as good as the 2021 offense? Statistically, it may actually be a tough ask. Napier’s 2019 offense finished 6th nationally in yards per play, averaging 7.01 a snap. But Napier’s last 2 offenses at Louisiana were well off Florida’s 2021 6.6 per play clip, and Napier’s 2021 Louisiana offense averaged just 5.96 a play, which ranked a pedestrian 54th in the country.
Napier also inherits an offense bereft of dynamic playmaking ability on the perimeter, something that hurt the Gators at times in big games in 2021 and might be even more costly in 2022 with the team’s top downfield wide receiver, Jacob Copeland, off to Maryland.
Still, there are reasons for optimism. The Gators are deep at running back and Anthony Richardson, who was dazzling in flashes in 2021, is fully healthy for the first time since his junior year of high school. Will a quarterback with first-round talent and a stable of running backs be enough to improve this Gators offense in 2022?
Here are the SDS predictions.
Key losses: Dameon Pierce, RB (NFL, Round 4); Malik Davis, RB (graduation); Copeland, WR (Maryland); Emory Jones, QB (Arizona State)
Key returnees: Anthony Richardson, QB; Justin Shorter, WR; Richard Gouriage, OT; Nay’Quan Wright, RB; Ethan White, G
Potential breakout players: Richardson; Lorenzo Lingard, RB
Skinny: The Gators lose Pierce, Pro Football Focus’s best running back in college football in 2021, who was woefully underutilized by Dan Mullen regime. That’s a shame, because Pierce would have excelled as a bell-cow in Napier’s ball-control offense. The good news for Florida is that Pierce departs from the deepest position group in the program, and the Gators have a wide and diverse array of talent ready to step in and replace him. Of the group, Nay’Quan Wright is the most complete back — he should start, but Lorenzo Lingard, who had a monstrous spring, and Louisiana transfer Montrell Johnson will play.
Florida got better at wide receiver this spring too when they added Arizona State transfer Ricky Pearsall. He’ll offer a little bit of a playmaking threat and a different kind of receiver to a group with plenty of 50/50 ball guys but not much in the way of vertical threats.
Passing offense: Better
The Gators finished 46th in the country in passing offense in 2021, an average passing team after being the nation’s best aerial attack in 2020. The biggest problem? A success rate that was 63rd in the country thanks to too many short completions and quarterbacks in Emory Jones and Anthony Richardson who combined to throw 18 interceptions. Only Arizona threw as many interceptions, and Florida’s inability to take care of the football ultimately proved to be a difference-maker in close losses to Alabama and LSU. As a result, the Gators can be a better passing offense in 2021 by simply taking better care of the football.
Florida needs Richardson to be more accurate than he was in 2021, when he completed under 60% of his passes. But even if Florida doesn’t have elite downfield talent, Richardson has such tremendous touch and arm strength that the Gators will likely hit some downfield explosives in the passing game. Plus, with a stable of big receivers like Justin Shorter, Marcus Burke, JaQuavion Fraziars and Xzavier Henderson, Florida can win 50/50 balls to chalk up explosives as well.
This passing offense will be better, if only slightly so.
Rushing offense: Better
As tempting as it is to circle back to the embarrassment of riches in Florida’s running back room, the truth is this prediction starts up front. Florida will lead the SEC in average weight on the offensive line in 2022, with Ethan White and Josh Braun monsters at guard and All-Sun Belt transfer O’Cyrus Torrence a behemoth who will likely start opposite White. Richard Gouraige had a terrific junior campaign and will be an All-SEC candidate at left tackle, and Kingsley Eguakan is one of the SEC’s premier centers. The lone question is at right tackle, where Michael Tarquin, a blue-chip recruit who played sparingly in 2021, will get the first crack. However, it’s easy to see a scenario where Florida slides Torrence out wide to start simply because they feel better about their depth at guard than they do at tackle, where Mullen lost too many recruiting battles. As long as this line stays healthy, there are pieces for Florida’s largest o-line rotation since the Meyer era, and that should mean a fresh, effective running game in the second half.
It helps that the talent behind the line will be magnificent.
Wright is a grinder who can get the tough yards after contact but also has the agility and elusiveness to create problems on the second level. Lingard is a burner who is finally healthy and hopes to pick up where he left off in the fall after a terrific spring. Montrell Johnson is the “do everything” guy, but it is his power that gives Florida a great red-zone option. Demarkcus Bowman, a 5-star transfer from Clemson (via Lakeland) who is a fan favorite, doesn’t seem likely to crack the rotation but has plenty of natural ability if he can learn to take better care of the football and become a better blocker. Wright and Lingard are especially useful as pass catchers and give Florida the opportunity to get multiple in their looks.
This will be an improved rushing offense because of Richardson as well. You can’t teach this stuff:
— CAMPUS | Fandom That Pays (@campusunlocks) June 17, 2022
It’s part of why folks are so excited to see Richardson start full-time in 2022. And it will help this offense immensely at the margins, where the Gators simply lacked the star power to win games a season ago.
Special teams: Even
Florida’s 2021 kicker duo of Jace Christmann and Chris Howard lacked any real range, and Christmann had a low kick blocked and run back for a game-winning touchdown in Florida’s loss at Kentucky. Given that, you might ask how Florida could fail to improve at this spot in 2022?
That’s fair, except that for all the bad, Christmann and Howard did manage to make 10-of-14 field goals. That’s a 71.4% average, which while not awesome, was stilll good enough for middle of the pack in the SEC.
Both those kickers are gone. Christmann graduated, and Howard, who made Florida’s longest kick when he hit from 51 yards against Kentucky, transferred after an erratic spring.
Trey Smack, blessed with a big star name and even bigger leg, arrives as the No. 2 kicker recruit in the country. If he’s the second coming of Bengals legend Evan McPherson, Florida will improve at this spot. If he’s a freshman with a big leg who still misses a kick or three, this unit will be about the same from a productivity standpoint.
The return game at Florida has been miserable for years, and there’s no reason to believe Fenley Graham, who is very fast but has yet to show that dynamism on a college football field, will change that. Florida should continue to struggle to generate much in the return game in 2022.