There’s no question Florida’s offense has made significant progress under Dan Mullen.
The numbers aren’t gaudy: 87th in total offense, 43rd in S&P+ offensive efficiency, 36th in yards per play (6.22). But they are a far cry from where Florida was in the four seasons preceding Mullen, where the best finish the offense ever had in either total offense or S&P+ was 73rd. That came in 2015, when Florida had the services of Will Grier at quarterback for most the first half of the season.
Further, there’s still value in the eye-test. To be blunt, Florida looks leaps and bounds better offensively.
The offense is well-designed to offset personnel deficiencies and instead of disgruntled press-conference references about getting the ball to people on a mythical “playmakers list,” Florida’s new staff is you know … getting the ball to the playmakers.
Case in point: In the entire 2017 season, two Gators quarterbacks threw touchdown passes, five Gators scored rushing touchdowns and seven Gators caught touchdown passes. Only Lamical Perine (9 TD) scored more than 3 touchdowns. Collectively, Florida’s quarterbacks threw only 10 touchdown passes in 11 games.
Through six games in 2018, two Gators have thrown touchdown passes and Florida has 14 touchdown passes thrown, 4 more than last year’s season total. Five Gators have scored rushing touchdown and seven Gators have caught touchdown passes, already good enough numbers to match the 2017 totals.
The numbers say the Gators are spreading the wealth.
Still, there’s one Gator the coaches and fans alike would like to get the football more, and that’s wide receiver Kadarius Toney.
As a freshman, Toney averaged nearly a first down a touch (9.4 yards) despite being limited due to injuries. He has improved on those numbers in 2018 with 151 yards on 15 rushes and receptions, good for an impressive average of a first down a touch (10.1 yards).
Much like Georgia’s versatile weapon Mecole Hardman, Toney gives the Gators a chance for a big play every time he touches the football, a luxury Florida hasn’t had on campus since the days of (at least) Jordan Reed.
Toney’s 34-yard reverse run against Tennessee keyed a late first-half drive that all but put the Vols away in Knoxville, and because this is the SEC and people are crazy, the run helped spark an online petition to get Toney “10 touches a game.”
Toney was even more vital in Florida’s upset win at Mississippi State.
A former high school quarterback who passed for nearly 3,000 yards and 32 touchdowns as a senior, Toney is a capable thrower and Mullen and the staff worked all summer on a series of plays where Toney could use his arm to fool a defense expecting him to run.
The chance came against the Bulldogs, with the Gators trailing by three.
The play, called “Kodak” after the rapper Kodak Black, was actually an RPO type design.
Feleipe Franks was to throw a lateral the ball to Toney in the flat and Toney’s job was to identify where the free safety was upon catching it. Because Florida had softened the Bulldogs’ defense with a healthy dose of perimeter screens and swing passes for two-plus quarters, Toney caught the ball, saw the safety creep up, and lofted a perfect pass to tight end Moral Stephens for what proved to be the game-winning touchdown.
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“If the safety hadn’t crept up, my job was to take off down the sideline,” Toney told the media after the win. “I just had to have faith in coach (Mullen) and faith in my ability that I would read it right and execute.”
Against LSU, Toney was again a centerpiece of Florida’s plan, despite registering only four touches.
LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda acknowledged before the game he expected to see a “healthy dose of Kadarius Toney and then more Kadarius Toney” and as a result, LSU often spied and followed the receiver as Mullen shifted him around from place to place on the field. By occupying defenders, Toney helped create better matchups for his teammates, impacting the game without the football.
But Toney made the most of his touches as well, including one run where he barreled over LSU’s All-SEC safety Grant Delpit, the type of “how do you do” play that shows what Toney’s offseason strength and conditioning work has meant and exemplified Florida’s new-found toughness and physicality under Mullen.
Toney was so proud of the play that he posted a picture of it on his Instagram, making sure to tag Grant Delpit along the way.
Nevertheless, the Florida coaching staff would readily admit they’d prefer to get Toney’s touches up closer to 10 a game instead of the 3 or so he’s averaging now.
Vanderbilt presents such an opportunity for Florida, as the Commodores’ defense has struggled mightily with speedy playmakers on the edge.
Gators fans will remember Treon Harris as the quarterback who replaced Will Grier in 2015 and remarkably went 2-0 as a starter against Georgia before transferring ahead of last season.
The Commodores’ defense will remember Treon Harris not as the quarterback who started in two wins over Vanderbilt with the Gators, but instead as the flex receiver playmaker for FCS program Tennessee State who menaced the Vandy defense in a too-close-for-comfort Commodores win earlier this season. Harris, who is certainly fast and athletic but lacks Toney’s top-end speed and elusiveness, is deployed similarly to Toney by Tennessee State, and Harris dominated Vanderbilt, registering 110 yards on 8 receptions and a touchdown.
With a bye week and a critical SEC East battle with Georgia looming, unleashing Toney’s full potential might be the next step for an already improving Gators offense.
The bet here is Florida’s coaches saw what Harris was able to do in a similar role and will do their best to make Toney a larger part of the game plan against the Commodores — and other defenses- moving forward.