O'Gara: How can Billy Napier get Anthony Richardson going? Tim Tebow has thoughts on the Gators' biggest question
There’s a pretty obvious No. 1 question in Gainesville right now.
“How can Billy Napier get Anthony Richardson going?”
It’s like asking how you can drive a Lamborghini on the highway without getting a speeding ticket. Richardson is that Lamborghini. If the past 2 Saturdays made you forget that, you’re not alone. The guy who became a viral sensation in his long-awaited first career home start against Utah is now 3 games into his first year in Billy Napier’s offense, and the results haven’t been great since the opener.
Richardson ranks last in the SEC in quarterback rating, and he has 0 touchdown passes with 4 interceptions. A 53 percent completion clip won’t get it done, and neither will throwing an interception once every 19.3 pass attempts.
In the past 2 games, Napier hasn’t been able to find the remedy to cure Richardson’s woes. It nearly resulted in the Gators falling to South Florida as a 24.5-point favorite (he wasn’t the only one to blame for that).
So what is the remedy? And can Napier find it ahead of this weekend’s massive showdown at Tennessee?
There might not be decisive answer to either question yet. That’s a daunting thought ahead of Richardson’s first true road game start Saturday at Tennessee.
But let’s at least break down some suggestions.
We know that there are mechanical tweaks that can be made. There’s only so much coaching Napier can do if Richardson is going to throw flat-footed passes late over the middle, and without his shoulders squared. If Richardson is going to check out of a run play in the red zone because he’d rather throw a goal-line fade even after the ground game was rolling, that’s a tough thing for Napier to overcome.
So then what is it?
Jordan Rodgers talked about on the SEC Saturday Night broadcast that the high-percentage throws were lacking. The problem, as Tim Tebow brought up, could be that those perceived high-percentage throws might not actually be what gets Richardson going.
“We think the screens and the shorter passes are easier and sometimes they are, depending on what it is. But sometimes, for some quarterbacks, myself being one of them, I’d love to take a shot early. Maybe that’s something that gives (Richardson) some confidence, too,” Tebow told SDS. “What’s important is you understand the player. All of us are different, right?”
Richardson is certainly different. He also still has only 143 career pass attempts. Clearly, he’s still figuring out what he does well as a passer. His best moment as a passer was what he did to improvise with his legs to create a wide-open throwing window on that 2-point conversion against Utah.
The fake-jump-pass is an absolutely electric move from Anthony Richardson pic.twitter.com/uKZ9c8uXfY
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) September 4, 2022
That ain’t in the playbook. Richardson is capable of that in any given moment, or at least one would think he is. Confidence got him to that place late in the game against Utah. That’s what Tebow believes is at the root of getting through those rough stretches.
“I think he needs to play with elite confidence,” Tebow told SDS. “When he’s been going, you can see that carry over. When things start to go against the offense, or the team or him, it’s been more hesitation. Play with elite confidence. If you make a mistake, make it going a million miles an hour. To play with elite confidence, the coaching staff has to help get him going. For everyone, it’s different. But understand how you work.
“For me, I love getting going early. Meaning if it just doesn’t feel right, I want to run 97-Q Power and hit someone between the eyes as hard as I possibly can and it would settle me down and get me into the game. What is that for (Richardson)?”
Tebow had the luxury of knowing that he could approach Dan Mullen and Urban Meyer with that open communication to tell them what he needed in a given spot. Richardson and Napier are still finding that give and take. The irony of Napier’s current dilemma is that he said after the Utah game that his wife could call plays for Richardson. The past 2 weeks would suggest that dialing up the right looks for Richardson isn’t that easy.
Against Kentucky, Richardson was 1-for-6 on passes that traveled 20 yards, and he was just 1-for-4 for on passes in the middle of the field (via SEC_StatCat). The majority of Richardson’s production came when targeting shallow routes to the left side of the field within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, which was an entirely different story if you look at the chart from his best game of the year against Utah:
Anthony Richardson’s pass chart vs Utah
73.9% Adj Comp
47.4% Depth Adj Acc
55.9% Air Yd
25% Play Actionhttps://t.co/a7ofzc5f4M pic.twitter.com/88j3FDzfaV
— Clark Brooks (@SEC_StatCat) September 5, 2022
As Tebow pointed out, Richardson got rolling against Utah with some “over” routes targeting Arizona State transfer Ricky Pearsall. Despite his cannon for an arm, Richardson hasn’t been able to consistently connect on those downfield chances yet. Some of that could be the lack of proven receivers, but as @SEC_StaCat pointed out, the average depth of target (ADOT) actually went from 6.5 yards against Utah to 10.9 yards against Kentucky.
Against USF, the best throw and catch of the day came in the 4th quarter when Richardson looked off the over-the-top safety and connected with Justin Shorter on a highlight-reel play 30 yards downfield. It wasn’t about finding a window or hitting a timing route. Richardson knew that if he looked the safety off, he’d get the 6-5 Shorter in single coverage and he gave him a chance to make a play.
But even with that play, the home-run hitters in the passing game have been few and far between. Through 3 games, Richardson only has 6 completions that have gone for 20 yards. That’s No. 13 in the SEC and behind 2 Vanderbilt quarterbacks. Of course, Florida faced 2 top-level defenses so far. It’s to be determined whether Tennessee will finish in that category.
So then does that mean the best way to get Richardson going at Tennessee is by avoiding those deep shots and instead starting with a ground-heavy attack?
“I think that’s what you get to. I don’t necessarily think it’s where you start,” Tebow said after a long pause. “When they line up the ’T’ and everything, and 110,000 are going crazy, I don’t go downhill to start it. I tire them out a little bit. They’re all gonna be comin’. Tennessee is feeling like they’re back, they’re gonna be playing physical to start. I do some play-actions. I use their aggression against them … then once I get into the game and you’re 2-3 drives in, then you pound, you pound, keeping it away with ball control to keep it away from Hendon Hooker and that offense.”
Tebow would also like to see Florida take a page out of Penn State’s playbook with what Mike Yurcich dialed up in the Lions’ 41-12 win at Auburn on Saturday. This is the type of designed quarterback run that Tebow said could get Richardson going early on Saturday with a tight end clearing space on a counter block.
Sean Clifford with the rushing touchdown to kick things off for Penn State ? pic.twitter.com/7IR6N6xRVT
— The Daily Collegian (@DailyCollegian) September 17, 2022
It’s not like the designed runs have been a significant part of the offense. Richardson’s lone run of 20 yards came on that viral 45-yard touchdown run against Utah. But that was called as a pass play that turned into Richardson recognizing that he plenty of open space after Utah somehow turned its back on him in man coverage.
To recap, Richardson’s best running play of the year and his best passing play of the year so far came after the original play design broke down. That probably explains why Napier has struggled to tap into that superstar ability when needed the past 2 games. It’s not as simple as saying Richardson is unstoppable throwing the slant off a run-pass option play.
So what can we take from all of this? Richardson is a complicated study.
He doesn’t have the touch yet to consistently connect on those short/intermediate throws, and even if he does, that’s not necessarily what he needs to feel comfortable within the flow of the game. The designed runs are great, but that’s complicated by Florida’s lack of quarterback depth with the Jack Miller thumb injury (he’s sidelined indefinitely), which means that Napier only has 1 quarterback that he trusts behind Richardson, and it’s a redshirt freshman (Jalen Kitna) who doesn’t have an FBS snap.
Shutting down any one element of Richardson’s game would seem foolish because in flashes, we’ve seen that Richardson can do it all. But we’ve also had a couple of games in which it looked like Richardson couldn’t really turn to any one thing.
Maybe a road rivalry game is just what the doctor ordered for Richardson. After he replaced an ineffective Emory Jones in last year’s game at LSU, he had 3 touchdown passes, which was nearly half of his career total of 7. Of course, he also had a pair of ugly interceptions.
The pressure and the circumstances are different a year later. Instead of answering the question about his superstar upside as the uber-talented backup, Richardson is now tasked with answering a much more pressing question. How does he get right?
“We all have these mechanisms and these practices that when we get skewed a bit, we can get back on the right page,” Tebow said. “It’s not doing what I would do. It’s not doing what you would do. It’s doing what’s best for him, what’s best for that system, what’s best for that offense. That’s where I can’t necessarily answer that.
“(Richardson) needs to be able to answer that for himself.”