Sit Anthony Richardson 1 more week, Dan Mullen, and let's see what Emory Jones is capable of
At the risk of sounding like a prisoner of the moment, I’m about to say something that might make Florida fans wonder if I’m mentally stable. It’s something I wouldn’t have said at this time last week, but hey, this is college football. Things change in a hurry. In 1 season, you can go from having the nation’s No. 1 passing offense to having the nation’s No. 2 rushing offense. Adapt or die.
So what’s my crazy thought? Sit Anthony Richardson this weekend, Dan Mullen. Let Emory Jones get every meaningful rep when Tennessee rolls into The Swamp on Saturday.
To be clear, I’d say that even if we saw Richardson doing 50 pregame backflips on that injured hamstring. I wouldn’t care if Richardson felt like the Tune Squad did after passing around a bottle of Michael’s Secret Stuff.
Give Jones an entire game to again be the guy. It can be best for the short- and long-term future of Florida’s quarterback room.
I don’t think it was a coincidence that Jones’ best game of the season came when Richardson was only an emergency quarterback and not the change-of-pace, human highlight reel for a backup. It’s amazing how some quarterbacks perform when they aren’t looking over their shoulder for 60 minutes.
If you think that’s reading too much into Jones’ 3-game sample size, think about this. How many of Jones’ mistakes were mental against USF and FAU? It was poor reads. It was scanning the field and being late on a throw. It wasn’t like Jones took the field and displayed a lack of touch or a lack of arm strength. He didn’t get physically manhandled when he tried to use his legs, either.
That explains why after his team went down 21-3 to Alabama — a smattering of boo-birds accompanied that deficit — Jones really started to play his best football as a starter so far.
He didn’t have to worry about getting benched. Mullen deserves credit for not abandoning the game plan to run the ball. Jones was far more Nick Fitzgerald than Kyle Trask, which nearly resulted in Alabama blowing its largest lead since 2010 against Cam Newton in the Iron Bowl.
And yeah, it helps a quarterback when the offensive line creates running lanes for backs to make plays like this:
Malik Davis CAN’T BE STOPPED!!
— PFF College (@PFF_College) September 18, 2021
That was easily the most impressive ground game performance we’ve seen from the Gators under Mullen, and it’s really not that close.
Dare I say, an identity was found, and go figure that it was without Richardson.
That’s not to say Jones is the better player. So far, Richardson owns that title.
But clearly, Mullen doesn’t want to wash 3 1/2 years of developing Jones down the drain. It’s still about building up his confidence. That’s perhaps why Mullen didn’t really dial up a ton of downfield looks against Alabama’s secondary, especially after his overthrow led to an Alabama interception.
Look at this setup. This was 5 receivers split wide with an empty-back set. There was no easy dump-off throw to make here. Jones had to account for Drew Sanders, who beat Florida’s left tackle and has a clean shot. That allowed Jones’ flat-footed throw to sail past 6-3 Xzavier Henderson, who never really had separation to begin with. But you would never know that based on Jones’ initial read. The problem? Nay’Quan Wright was the only receiver who was even turned around and looking for the ball. This was too slow of a developing play for Jones, given how he’s struggled with reading coverages so far:
That’s why if you look at Jones’ throws later in the game, it was significantly quicker with how the routes developed. On that 26-yard play to Rick Wells — that was the second-longest pass gain of the day for Florida — Jones got protection and he also got a linebacker trying to cover a veteran slot receiver in space on a quick-hitting route. Advantage, Wells.
On Jones’ biggest pass play of the day, he faked the zone read to Wright, who ran a swing route on the left side. That was covered, but with his eyes already in that direction, Jones found a wide open Keon Zipperer 5 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. It looked like Will Anderson was supposed to stick with Gamble, but he didn’t, and it went for a 30-yard gain.
It didn’t matter that Jones was being hit as he threw because his target was wide open and not 15 yards upfield (Zipperer is No. 9 in the upper right-hand corner of the screen shot):
Jones still can’t be counted on to go through his progressions and drop it in a bucket to a streaking receiver with a step of separation. But Mullen can still disguise those types of looks and have plenty of success with Jones.
Is that a bit more limited than Richardson? Yeah. Obviously. But right now is when Mullen really needs to find out what Jones’ true strengths and weaknesses are and adjust to that.
Some might say, well, why not just play Richardson if he’s healthy and if he’s the better player?
There’s a bit more that goes into that for Mullen with selling his own development and also not abandoning Jones, who has made bad decisions but hasn’t necessarily struggled to the point of no return.
It’s also worth remembering that Richardson re-injured his hamstring. Like, the same one that he hurt in the spring. It might be wise to let that fully heal before he’s truly unleashed. If Mullen really does want to play both quarterbacks moving forward, that plan is dependent on both quarterbacks being healthy. Pulled hamstrings are no joke, which is probably why Mullen was so cautious with Richardson against Alabama.
Against Tennessee, who has surprisingly been excellent defending the run so far, it would still be wise to stick to the Alabama game plan. With all due respect to Pitt, Florida’s ground game is going to present Tennessee with a different challenge with Jones, Malik Davis and Dameon Pierce. That trio is averaging 185 rushing yards (on 6 yards per carry) and 3 touchdowns per game.
Florida is nearly a 3-touchdown favorite to take care of Tennessee for the 5th consecutive time. The Vols are still finding their offensive identity. We don’t even know who will be the Tennessee starting quarterback (Florida fans should have their fingers crossed that it’s Joe Milton).
We know will be starting for the Gators. Whether you like it or not, Florida fans, Jones is still the guy moving forward. That’s been the message from Mullen, and barring a total collapse, I wouldn’t expect that dynamic to change anytime soon.
And as for Saturday, well, let’s just say it wouldn’t be the worst thing if Richardson’s most noteworthy action came from a pregame backflip.