The Florida offense: Insiders roundtable discussion
It’s the halfway point of Florida’s 2021 season which is a good time to take inventory of where things are. From a program perspective, Saturday’s date with LSU in Death Valley (Noon ET, ESPN) looms large as perhaps the first “must-win” of Dan Mullen’s tenure at Florida.
From a 2021 season perspective, the Gators are improving defensively, though missed tackles remain a too common part of their identity.
The offense? That discussion is a bit more complex. To help us flesh it out, we brought in Florida’s excellent beat writer, Nick de la Torre of Rivals, and Florida’s best podcaster, David Waters of Gators Breakdown, who were kind enough to join me for a roundtable discussion. We discussed quarterbacks, playmakers, what’s up with the wide receiver room and more.
Neil Blackmon, SDS: Florida is 4-2 and 2-2 in the SEC. To get to Atlanta, they need to beat Georgia, have Georgia lose again, and have Kentucky lose 3 of its last 4 in the SEC. That’s not happening, I don’t think.
That means Dan Mullen has a decision to make, doesn’t it? Is Emory Jones the future of the program in 2022 or is it time to let Anthony Richardson play meaningful football?
I think this question is less about what Mullen will do and more about what he should be doing or do — but isn’t that part of the criticism of Mullen too — that Dan always knows best and Dan doesn’t shake it up?
David Waters, Gators Breakdown: That is certainly part of the criticism. I’m sure there is a sense of loyalty Mullen feels for Emory Jones by him sticking around to wait his turn and he doesn’t want to give up on him after 6 games. If the Kentucky game is any indication, Emory Jones won’t lose games for Florida, but I’m not sure he’s going to go out and win many for you, either. Right now, it feels like just doing enough to get by and that came back to haunt Florida. Given that, I feel it is time to let Richardson play more meaningful snaps. Does that mean start? Not necessarily, but he needs huge chunks of the game and probably close to half of the snaps.
The knock on Richardson from Mullen, and behind the scenes, is that he doesn’t know the offense as well as Emory Jones. That is true, but haven’t we seen enough to know the offense is limited with Emory Jones, too? So, it really is just a different set of limitations for Richardson that live game reps will help him grow. In just limited snaps, teams have to respect his explosiveness through the air and on the ground. Play-making ability and explosiveness are the potentials Richardson brings that Emory just hasn’t shown a lot of lately. I don’t know for sure Richardson can either, but at least we have seen it in limited action.
Opponents have caught up a little bit in defending Emory Jones and Mullen is really having to scheme around that to make a difference. The conservative approach by both coach and/or the QB is really limiting this offense right now. I do think it is time to give Richardson more snaps, see how he progresses. Mullen knows by now teams are catching on to the limitations of this offense, and if the run game isn’t working, it gets limited even more. This year’s offense may never be at the point where they are lighting up the scoreboard on most opponents, so the potential for explosive plays is even more crucial. Richardson brings that potential and it is time to shake it up. I guess we could really ask ourselves, what does Dan think is best? He really could believe Richardson isn’t ready and not willing to throw him out there. His conservative nature has pretty much always been there in switching QBs and handing over the reins to the “up and comer.”
Nick de la Torre, Rivals: Have you ever seen an episode of Ice Road Trucker? They have easier routes to their destination than Florida does to Atlanta. Living in that new reality — where you’re essentially eliminated from contention on October 1 — isn’t a good feeling, but I don’t think it means that Dan Mullen will scrap the original plan and go with Anthony Richardson. To be perfectly honest, I don’t know that Richardson is ready to be the guy.
I’ve certainly enjoyed watching him play this season, he has been electric at times but he’s also looked like a redshirt freshman. The knock on Jones right now is that Florida isn’t driving the ball and stretching offenses. Do we know that inserting Richardson will add that dimension to Florida’s offense, I don’t know that we have an answer to that. I’m all for getting Richardson more meaningful snaps. I think he had just 6 snaps against Kentucky and I would have liked for that to be closer to 10 or more. Getting Richardson valuable experience — and I don’t mean playing the whole fourth quarter in a blowout win over Vanderbilt — will be good for the future of the program. Make no mistake about it: Anthony Richardson is Florida’s future. I just don’t think Mullen is ready to give up on this season and give up on Emory Jones.
Neil: I’m with you both on letting Richardson play meaningful snaps. I don’t know if that means start either, but the more SEC live game reps he has, the better. You could definitely see some of his unfamiliarity with the playbook in the loss in Lexington. Three called pass plays with Richardson and he threw 1 pass, electing to take off and run for small gains on the other 2. I think Mullen would prefer he run what’s called.
One other thing that mystified me: Mullen’s refusal to go over the top against Kentucky’s quality defense. Is that about a lack of confidence in Jones, even if Mullen doesn’t say so?
Nick: Mullen will never say it publicly, but what did the wise sage Jim McElwain once say?
“Your actions speak so loudly that I can’t hear what you’re saying.”
Mullen can say he trusts Emory to make the throws that Kyle Trask did in 2020, but when Zach Carter sacks Will Levis and there’s 2:43 left on the clock before halftime and Kentucky’s getting the ball to start the second half, you could bet your last dollar that he would have called a timeout as quickly as possible following that sack if Trask were his quarterback. Florida didn’t even really press the issues once they got the ball on that drive. Emory Jones has an arm. He can probably throw it as far as Uncle Rico, clear over them mountains, but we haven’t seen the anticipation. That was my biggest question coming into the season and 6 games in I have my unsurprising answer.
Dave: Mullen says it is not and even said they tried deep shots on the drive before halftime, but Kentucky defended them well. There are also many plays that show WRs open streaking down the field and Emory doesn’t read the play for the explosive. He’s taking the safe throw a lot even when the play call has an open WR downfield. He pulled the trigger on one versus Kentucky and it was an INT. So while limited, I do think the calls are there, need to be there, and, hopefully, that is Emory’s next progression.
We wanted to see steps and he has improved in not throwing interceptions, but I also think that has turned into Emory taking less risks and it limits the offense for explosive plays. The safe throw/decision isn’t resulting in big plays for the WRs since they have to break tackles to get them.
Neil: Speaking of explosive plays, let’s make sure we don’t leave this roundtable of distinguished gentleman without bringing up the playmakers.
Jacob Copland has come along since a slow opener against FAU. He was a monster against USF, drew 2 legitimate pass interference calls (you have to qualify when you talk SEC officials this year) working on Josh Jobe in the Alabama game, and was essentially unrecoverable against Kentucky. It was unfortunate Florida couldn’t get him the ball more than the 6 times on 8 targets they did, but you have to like what you see from him. I know there was the fumble in the red zone against Tennessee, but on an effort play, is anyone but the Twitter mob mad? He’s been good.
The running back room is deep and versatile too and all 3 who play have had their moments.
But where are you guys on the rest of the playmakers? We knew it would look different this year with more quarterback runs involved. But are you surprised we haven’t seen more from the tight end position, or Demarkcus Bowman, or maybe even Xzavier Henderson, who kind of comes and goes?
And beyond Copeland, is there a guy like Freddie Swain who is always open?
Dave: It has been hit or miss with the TEs so far this season with no stats in the first 2 games and then unleashed as part of the game pan vs. Alabama. You mention a lack of explosive plays and Keon Zipperer has shown at times to be a good run after the catch option. I am a bit surprised that Kemore Gamble and Zipp aren’t involved in the game plan a bit more, especially considering safe targets tight ends can be. Emory’s interception was a target to Gamble up the seam, but he didn’t throw him open and instead threw it behind. There was a chance for a bigger play to a tight end, but Emory made a bad throw for the interception. So, they are not being totally overlooked, but maybe we now start to see them involved in safer routes for the QB.
Another aspect I am a bit surprised by are no carries for Bowman or Lorenzo Lingard in SEC play. Understandable with the play of Dameon Pierce, Malik Davis and Nay’Quan Wright, but I did expect a package here or there for those guys. Right now there is still an element of surprise of what those guys can do and somewhere I think Florida can take advantage.
Yes, there are probably issues these guys have compared to the vets, but their tendencies aren’t on tape yet. Playmaking ability is still something lacking from the veteran RBs as far as the home run style of run goes, a lot of “doubles and triples” but still missing that home run.
Are Bowman and/or Lingard that threat? We have still yet to see that, but I’d like to find out. Could they struggle in pass catching and pass blocking? Sure, but without those aspects on tape, perhaps we could see a play designed for one of those guys to add the big explosive.
I’d say the closest player Florida has to Freddie Swain right now, beyond Copeland, would have to be Rick Wells. He seems to be a favorite target for Emory Jones. He’s only behind Copeland (21) in number of catches (14) and he’s been wide open for many of them. Because of play design and what Emory is comfortable in completing, yards after the catch are limited . Of Wells’ 14 catches, 9 went for a 1st down and 2 more resulted in touchdowns. Eleven of his 14 catches have a great result. So besides Copeland, I’d have to go with Wells as the WR stepping up. Now, it’s just about bringing it week-to-week.
Neil: OK — last question. Did y’all see anything against Vanderbilt that changed your perspective on this before the LSU game? Other than the fact it is obvious why Nay’Quan Wright plays so much and maybe Demarkcus Bowman does not? Thanks, y’all. Been a pleasure.
Dave: That the deep ball actually was a focus in this offense after not attempting any vs. Kentucky. Mullen can say all he wants about taking what the defense is giving them, but attempting the downfield pass was clearly emphasized between Kentucky and Vanderbilt. I’m sure in review, they saw open receivers vs. Kentucky that never got the pass thrown their way, but that was remedied vs. the Commodores.
There were 5 passes completed of over 20 yards for gains of 32, 51, 61, 47 and 25 yards after having only 1 pass completed over 20 yards (22) last week vs Kentucky. In those deep passes vs. Vanderbilt, it was WRs and RBs getting involved, proving the Gators can rely on different players and positions to help create the explosive plays.
Nick: I don’t think I saw anything against Vanderbilt that changed how I feel about this Florida team. I thought it would be tough for the team to get up for a nooner against Vandy following the Kentucky loss and I think we saw that in the way the game started. Now, I actually wonder what the team will do the rest of the way. With Georgia and Kentucky both taking care of business last week, the Gators’ already slim chances of getting to Atlanta will soon be zero, and then you’re only playing for pride.
What will happen when Florida is ultimately mathematically eliminated?
I’d like to think that they’re a tight-knit group and that they’ll rally around each other but that might be a lesson we learn this week in Baton Rouge.