Florida Football Friday Final: Gators, Anthony Richardson face tough road test in Tennessee

By OnlyGators.com Staff
September 23, 2022
Florida Football Friday Final: Gators, Anthony Richardson face tough road test in Tennessee
Football

Image Credit: UAA

Though the Florida Gators and their fans always knew the 2022 season would amount to a rebuilding year for the program given its new leadership and direction, a shocking Week 1 upset of a top-10 Utah team quickly changed expectations. Florida’s play as of late has perhaps reset them again.

Not only did the No. 20 Gators struggle mightily in a disastrous home loss to a top-25 Kentucky team in Week 2, Florida nearly suffered one of the worst losses in program history last week against South Florida. The Gators will now hit the road for the first time this season as they play their third ranked opponent in the first four weeks of the season.

The No. 11 Tennessee Volunteers present the toughest challenge of the season not only because of the team’s talent and style of play but the raucous atmosphere that will surely be presented to Florida when it enters Neyland Stadium on Saturday afternoon.

Billy Napier will look to become the sixth straight Gators head coach to defeat the Vols in his first meeting with the program, a streak that dates back to Steve Spurrier, who was the last Florida boss to lose such a game in 1990. Suffice to say, Napier is aware this will be a daunting task.

“Tennessee has got a good football team. You can see where Coach [Josh] Heupel and his staff have improved in their time there,” he said. “A lot cleaner product in all three areas of their team on film [compared to last year]. Much cleaner football — offense, defense and special teams — maybe compared to last year. This is a veteran team we’re playing against. … They’re a deep team. They play a lot of players, especially on the defensive side.”

No only that, the Vols play fast. They like to run a play in 18 seconds or less but average one about every 20 seconds the offense is on the field. For a Gators team that struggled massively against the run last week, the will have to ensure not to be playing on their heels given everything UT can do offensively with a mobile quarterback in Hendon Hooker and some talented playmakers at the perimeter.

“There will be some strategy when it comes to that, in terms of controlling the tempo of the game, and how you play offensively can ultimately influence how they play offense,” Napier said. “… First-and-10 is a big down when you play these teams, and certainly you’ve got to try to knock them out of their rhythm. It can become a problem for you when it turns into five-, six-, seven-, eight-play drives. So, it’s a momentum system, right? You’ve got to do everything you can do to slow down that momentum.”

And then, of course, there’s Neyland Stadium itself, which should be sold out with over 100,000 fans in attendance given that this is a major rivalry game and ESPN “College GameDay” will be in town.

The veteran players on our team will be comfortable with that,” said Napier of the atmosphere. “… We do a ton of work, training camp in particular, we do a number of things with crowd noise. So, we get out in front of that, anticipate that, knowing that’s coming, and it’s not going away, right? We’re going to have to deal with it the rest of the way.”

In other words, Florida is up against it Saturday. But given the program has won 16 of the last 17 meetings and seven of the last eight in Knoxville, Tennessee, the Gators at least have history on their side. In order for that to remain the case, Napier wants to ensure Florida does what it can to make Tennessee earn every yard and every point on the scoreboard.

“We got to eliminate the ‘disaster plays.’ … Our teams, we’ve always taken pride saying, ‘We’re not going to give the opponent anything. We’re going to make them earn everything that they get.’ And that’s what’s frustrating to me. We’re giving the team a lot of things in all three phases of the game,” said Napier of UF’s play through three weeks. “… It’s a product of new systems, new way of doing things. We need more repetition. We need more intentional practice. We need to be deliberate about everything we do … and then certainly bring all that to the game and do it and have the execution to do it exactly right on game day.”

Back to basics

While the Gators’ defense struggled last week, the biggest issue with the team right now is the inconsistent play of sophomore quarterback Anthony Richardson. After a stellar effort against Utah that seemed to be the product of all the flashes Richardson showed a year ago (70.8% passing, 106 yards rushing, three rushing touchdowns), he has cratered in two games since (45% passing, four interceptions, 28 yards rushing). Through all three games, he’s yet to throw a passing touchdown, and he hasn’t scored at all in the last two contests.

Napier attributes Florida’s problems in the passing game to a lack of precision, saying everyone can pinpoint the issue including fans and his wife. However, while Richardson is certainly contributing to those issues, he clarified that precision has to do with things like protection, attention to detail (depth of routes, aiming points) and Richardson’s progression reading and decision making.

Also affecting the Gators is a lack of quarterback runs, one of the facets of Richardson’s game that makes him so unique and keeps defenses off-balance. While it had not been admitted previously that Florida was protecting Richardson due to a lack of depth at the position, Napier and Richardson finally conceded as much this week.

“Our situation at quarterback has something to do with that, if that makes sense, but I also believe the guy’s made some plays with his legs. The guy made two third-down conversions in the game the other day where it’s third-and-long and he goes through his progression and then breaks the pocket and makes a play,” Napier said. “… Each game and each week is a little bit different relative to the concepts that are called, how the team’s defending you. Teams are very aware that this guy can beat them with his feet.”

Added Richardson, who said he held himself back from running as much in the two games since Utah: “I definitely consider [not running] because they tell me every week I gotta be careful. I can’t take big hits. I can’t be Superman out there. I try not to be too physical. I try to get down. I started sliding this year. I definitely think about it. I don’t think it takes me out of my game; it just helps me stay a little safer.”

Beyond some decision-making questions, Richardson has clearly suffered from declining confidence over the last couple weeks. Napier is attempting to keep his spirits up by reminding him that development is a process and “journey,” He also pointed out that Richardson played extremely well in the first half against USF only to fall apart over the final 30 minutes.

Richardson attributes some of his issues to teams not biting on the run during play actions and spying him more frequently, but he also admitted to being too much in his own head during games, something that has not been an issue at any other point in his career. During media availabilities, he is always calm and collected. From the outside, he appears to be thoughtful and insightful, which may be contributing to some of those aforementioned issues.

To help focus on the game and clear his mind, Richardson said he’s been speaking with key people in his life: his menor, high school coach and mother. He said those conversations have helped him refocus.

The Gators also tried something new this week, according to Richardson, as quarterbacks and wide receivers watched film together for the first time. The effort, he said, was so each position could better understand what the other was thinking given the lack of familiarity between the players with each other and the new system.

Regarding the lack of passing touchdowns, Richardson understands the concern. Again, he has been in his own head about it. But he also realizes what’s most important is winning, and if there was ever a get-right game for a young signal caller, on the road at Tennessee is it.

“At first, it was definitely getting to me, because you’re like, ‘Bro, you’re a quarterback. How come you do not have any passing touchdowns? You have four interceptions,’” Richardson admitted. “… It was affecting me a little bit, but now I’m just like, ‘OK, it’s football.’ I just gotta let it come to me.”

Depth chart updates

Sophomore nose tackle Desmond Watson has been elevated to the starting role after a stellar performance against USF. Watson, who is down to 415 pounds after losing 40 pounds this offseason, continues to impress the coaching staff. “He’s done a great job, and let me tell you something, he’s just getting started,” Napier said. “The guy will only continue to improve if he can stay on this course. It’s a wholesale change in terms of habits, discipline, we’re talking about nutrition, sleep, overall approach. I couldn’t be more proud of the guy. And I’m gonna tell you something: It’s scary to think where this guy can go if he continues to lose weight at the rate he is. He’s starting to be a weapon for our team, and it can only get better if he stays the course from a discipline standpoint.”

Injury updates

Cornerback Jaydon Hill (probable): The redshirt sophomore has been out of action for more than a year after tearing his ACL ahead of the season. An expected starter in 2021, Hill has slowly but surely been working his way back, and Napier now anticipates him playing Saturday for the first time since the Cotton Bowl after the 2019 season.

Linebacker Ventrell Miller (questionable): After missing the South Florida game with a lower-body injury, Miller will likely be a game-time decision on Saturday. The Gators clearly struggled last week without the redshirt senior, who serves as the quarterback of the defense, with their run defense particularly struggling. Miller will play if he is able to manage the pain associated with his injury ahead of kickoff.

RT Michael Tarquin, QB Jack Miller III (out): Tarquin, a redshirt sophomore starter, will miss his second straight game. Miller, a redshirt freshman who has yet to play for Florida, remains sidelined as he continues recovering from thumb surgery just before the start of the season.

Cleaning out the notebook

Napier on whether it will be tough to narrow the travel roster: It is tough. … Where we’re at [roster-wise], probably not as big of a deal. Down the road, you get into Year 2, 3, 4 and you’ve got a little bit deeper team, that’s when it becomes a challenge.”

Napier on Florida’s problems defending the run last week: Conflict, right? First, second and third level being on the same page. … I will compliment the staff. At halftime, we went into the locker room and really cleaned it up. … And we didn’t make the same mistake twice, which is good. We defended some of those plays better in the second half.”

Napier on redshirt sophomore CB Jalen Kimber after his big interception vs. USF: It’s impressive. The kid got banged up, made a decision he was going to play through [the hand injury]. [He] could have had a surgical procedure that would have put him out but maybe got him back a few weeks earlier, or he could just wear the cast, deal with the pain management. It really says a lot about the kid’s character because he knew our situation with Jaydon Hill being out. So, he was in the rotation, chose to go the long haul there, and for him to make a pick six at a critical moment was big. … Hat’s off to Kimber. He’s been a very consistent, steady player, and [I’m] hopeful that he can continue to improve.

Napier on how the Gators have played thus far: “We by no means look like what I want us to look like eventually. … I do think we’re getting closer.”

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