Any hopes Florida Gators fans might have had for ballyhooed backup quarterback Anthony Richardson taking all of the snaps in Jacksonville when the Gators meet vaunted Georgia next Saturday got a cold bath of reality from Florida head coach Dan Mullen on Monday, as he confirmed in his weekly press conference that the Gators will use both quarterbacks in a similar fashion to how they have all year.
Dan Mullen says "not really. We're going to continue playing them the same way" when asked if there was a change at quarterback.— Nick de la Torre (@delatorre) October 25, 2021
Mullen says the #Gators plan to keep playing both quarterbacks, Emory Jones and Anthony Richardson.— Zach Goodall (@zach_goodall) October 25, 2021
This is par for the course from Mullen, who has rejected and resisted publicly-proffered notions of a quarterback controversy and the idea that Richardson has been more effective than Jones throughout this fall. Jones has started all seven games for Florida, with Richardson cameoing in five games for which he has been healthy.
Florida’s seventh game, however, was its loss to LSU two Saturdays ago, a game in which Richardson replaced a largely ineffective Jones and led the Gators to 28 points in the second half in Tiger Stadium — intensifying the volume of calls to see Richardson as Florida’s starter, full-time quarterback, or primary recipient of snaps at the position.
I wrote, in that postgame recap, that Richardson had made a compelling case to take over that role from Jones:
It is hard to imagine a compelling argument that Florida should not make Richardson its starting quarterback going forward, especially with this loss dropping it well and truly out of contention for the biggest baubles in college football this season. The old argument for Richardson was a familiar one: Jones has at most one more season in Gainesville, and has perhaps hit the ceiling on his potential; Richardson has more time to grow, and more — maybe significantly more — headroom.
But Richardson was also simply a better quarterback on this day. And if Mullen wants to preserve at least a veneer of meritocracy in his program, he would do well to permanently elevate Richardson, whose body of work has now convincingly earned the shot to start at the same time that Jones’s has earned a demotion.
I think those ideas hold up. But I can concede that there is, in fact, a compelling argument against Richardson being named Florida’s starter today.
The cynic in me cannot help but observe that, by not specifying a starter or detailing his plan for Florida’s QBs against Georgia, Mullen conveniently gives himself an out. He can maintain a public posture of everything being status quo in his program, ignore the consternation from a mostly impotent fan base, and then start Richardson and play him for the majority of snaps against Georgia. He is obviously not providing sworn testimony under oath at press conferences; there is no legal penalty for perjury in this context.
But maintaining at least a modicum of mystery is also, of course, the smart move from the perspective of a coach who can force his counterpart to plan for all contingencies. While Georgia’s dominant defense would seem more than up to the task of defending Florida’s offense regardless of its quarterback, Kirby Smart’s finite practice time leading up to this weekend’s matchup could be better spent on preparing for concepts and plays Florida has favored with Jones or Richardson if there were a declared starter.
I also think it’s folly to assume, based on largely noncommittal comments, that Mullen won’t give a larger share of snaps to Richardson than he previously has.
Florida had sustained success through the air and on the ground with Richardson at QB against LSU, something it had not previously had against an SEC foe. That fits the narrative of Richardson’s development presented by Mullen — one of a handful of people who can author it definitively — as that of a young quarterback learning the intricacies of the position, little things that, once mastered, will allow him to be trusted on the plays that he can’t turn into explosive positive outcomes by force of will and talent alone. Who is to say that Mullen wasn’t convinced to Richardson more by that level of play against LSU — especially since, uh, Florida did play Richardson more in that second half?
And Florida giving snaps to both quarterbacks against Georgia makes sense even if its offense’s numbers with Richardson at the controls point to him as a better choice.
The Bulldogs have a hyper-athletic and physically imposing defense, and sharing the wear and tear of attacking it — especially for QBs likely to be used as runners — is smart from a purely humanitarian perspective even before considering its strategic value. Plus, while Mullen defaulting and demurring on the thorny choice of Jones or Richardson for the rest of 2021 is sure to annoy many, Mullen having a choice to make is a better state of play than Florida suddenly being down to one healthy quarterback, the situation that it found itself in against Alabama in September.
Any of many possibilities could still play out for Florida against Georgia on Saturday. Mullen not committing to one may frustrate those fans persuaded that Richardson as Florida’s No. 1 quarterback is the best strategic choice moving forward.
But the value of heading off that frustration likely isn’t as significant as fans might think, and the value of Mullen keeping his cards close to the vest is substantial.