Florida coach Dan Mullen finally clarifies why QB Anthony Richardson may not be ready for starting job

By Adam Silverstein
September 13, 2021
Florida coach Dan Mullen finally clarifies why QB Anthony Richardson may not be ready for starting job
Football

Image Credit: @GatorsFB on Twitter

As the No. 11 Florida Gators prepare for an incredibly difficult early-season showdown with the No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide on Saturday, the focus has been less about what will happen on the field and more about who will start at quarterback for Florida. That position, specifically at this program, is a flash point for national conversation.

Being the Gators quarterback matters. Three Heisman Trophies from three of the biggest names in the sport’s history who held that job made that a reality long ago.

Unfortunately for head coach Dan Mullen, that position has created the most controversy — at least on the outside looking in — through two weeks of this season.

Redshirt junior Emory Jones, after waiting four years to become the Florida starter, has massively underperformed expectations. At the same time, redshirt freshman Anthony Richardson has put together so many explosive plays through two games that he’s drawing comparisons to Tim Tebow and Cam Newton.

Mullen has tried but failed to pump the breaks on talks that Richardson may replace Jones as starter. He’s mostly done that through veiled statements about Richardson making mistakes in games that the coach could explain but chose not to because those explanations would bore fans and the media.

Asked again Monday what is holding him back from anointing Richardson as the starter, Mullen finally decided to clarify.

“An easy [example]. … He drops back. He misses a protection check. Then misses the hot throw. Then misses the primary read. And then scrambles around and runs, and everyone thinks, ‘What a spectacular play.,'” said Mullen before shrugging.

Mullen is pointing out that what might appear to be an outstanding effort to those externally may instead simply be a player lucking out by freestyling after making mistakes, as Richardson did in this example.

Such successful playmaking shows unique talent and notable athleticism that led to a tremendous outcome in the vacuum of that one play. However, Richardson’s inability to go through the necessary process to complete the play as planned is not something that Mullen believes would be sustainable over an entire game.

Furthermore, while Richardson may be able to get away with turning miscues into explosive plays against FAU and South Florida, it’s unlikely that SEC opponents or teams like Alabama will be as susceptible considering the Crimson Tide have arguably the most talented defense in the country.

And if prioritizing “The Process” over individualized results sounds familiar to you, that’s because it’s the calling card of the head coach Florida is facing Saturday, Alabama’s Nick Saban.

However, it does bring into question how much further behind Richardson sits with regard to his development than Jones. Consider that the former has put forward an astounding eight quarters of football despite making sporadic appearances, while the latter has proven through those same eight quarters that he does not go through his progressions, frequently locks onto receivers, throws short and/or late passes and has not only tossed four interceptions (tied for 10th most nationally) but nearly two pick sixes.

Jones is completing 63.3% of his passes, but he’s only averaging 132 yards and one touchdown per game through the air with a QB rating of 105.7. Richardson’s rating by comparison is 261.2.

“I’ve been a coach now for a long time with a lot of different [quarterback] situations and scenarios that you look at,” Mullen said. “Some [situations] cause you to have one quarterback and another one come in to run a certain package. Other situations cause you to rotate them a little bit more. … There’s so much that goes into it that every situation is unique. … I’ve had so many of them.”

Mullen again has a point. His calling card throughout his career has been that he’s a quarterback whisperer. You know the names before he took the reins as head coach at Florida: Alex Smith, Chris Leak, Tebow, Dak Prescott. His arrival drastically improved the play of then-Gators QB Feleipe Franks, and his extraordinary development of Kyle Trask led to one of the best offensive seasons in program history just last year.

But those are not the memories recalled when discussing Jones vs. Richardson. Rather, we remember Mullen playing Franks over Trask with Trask only getting an opportunity to lead the team once Franks got injured. We also remember Trask leading the Gators better than Franks ever did, leaving us to wonder how Mullen could miss the obvious while watching both players daily in practice.

Maybe the real question is not whether Jones or Richardson should start Saturday but whether Mullen’s well-known stubbornness will cloud his judgement as the season wears on (assuming Richardson continues to show the same talent and ability he’s flashed over the first two games).

“I’ll be honest with you. I don’t listen to many suggestions. If you’re in our staff meeting, I’m going to listen to your suggestion,” Mullen said. “I don’t run down to Shands Hospital and tell them, ‘Boy, I really think you should do that procedure this way.’ I think those guys have that under control. They’re the people — they’re the experts — that are doing it.”

Again, Mullen has a point. We are not in practice every day. We do not sit in team meetings. We do not get to review the all-22 film. And we are certainly not aware of his game plan for Alabama, which may factor into how much he’s willing to share publicly regarding his evaluations of Jones and Richardson.

Even without Richardson starting Saturday, the quarterback’s ability to play the game is in question. He experienced “tightness” in his hamstring at the end of an 80-yard touchdown against South Florida and did not return to the game. Mullen said Monday that he expects Richardson to practice this week, but his ability to play will have to be evaluated by coaches and trainers over the next few days.

The expectation for Saturday, then, is that Jones starts and Richardson plays in spurts, perhaps more frequently than he’s taken the field over the first two weeks. After all, junior wide receiver Jacob Copeland admitted Monday that the Gators barely skimmed the surface of their playbook against FAU and USF.

Mullen’s talent for developing quarterbacks and running offenses is unquestionable. The Gators’ improved play and offensive success since his arrival is without doubt.

At some point, though, the obvious is the obvious and the truth is the truth. What’s become obvious is that Jones is not the caliber of player many expected, and Richardson’s potential is off the charts. What may soon become the truth is that Florida could be better off with Richardson under center, even if he’s going to make plenty of mistakes in his own right.

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