We’re about to find out how far Anthony Richardson can take the Florida Gators in 2022

By OnlyGators.com Staff
September 1, 2022
We’re about to find out how far Anthony Richardson can take the Florida Gators in 2022
Football

Image Credit: Alexis Greaves, UAA

The Florida Gators in 2022 will only be as good as Anthony Richardson allows them to be. If that sounds like too much pressure to put on the sophomore quarterback, well, too bad. It’s the truth. And if this all sounds familiar, it’s because Florida football began a season with the exact same truth 15 years ago when Tim Tebow entered his first year as a full-time starter for the Gators.

Fifteen years later, Florida finds itself in a similar — albeit far from the same — situation. Those 2007 Gators were coming off their first national championship in a decade, welcoming a loaded recruiting class before a known rebuilding effort in Year 3 under their star head coach, Urban Meyer. These 2022 Gators are coming off a 6-7 campaign, their third losing season since 2013 after not having one such record in the 34 years prior. Their incoming recruiting class is solid but tough to compare, and while their head coach in Billy Napier has his own level of hype, Napier will be in Year 1 of his tenure looking to reverse the program’s fortunes following three consecutive failed regimes.

So again, similar … yet far from the same.

Back to Richardson, the 21-year-old Gainesville, Florida, product who not only stayed home but stuck around despite the coach to whom he originally committed flaming out. Perhaps no Florida quarterback to this point has flashed as bright despite seeing such limited action. Playing behind Emory Jones in the first two weeks of the 2021 season, Richardson completed 6 of 11 passes for 192 yards and ran 11 times for 275 yards, totaling four touchdowns. And then he got hurt … and stayed hurt. To the point that even when Richardson ultimately spelled and replaced Jones later in the season, he struggled to live up to the hype he created for himself with that opening salvo.

“It means a lot,” said Richardson when asked about starting for the team of his youth. “I always talk to people, and I tell them, I feel like my purpose on Earth was to have an impact on people, help people, be there for people. So, me being from Gainesville and growing up here and being the starting quarterback means a lot to everyone. It puts a lot on me, but I’m totally fine with that because I get to show what I can do and show people how it’s supposed to be done. I’m glad I have the opportunity.”

But 2021 is the past. Perhaps not dead and buried but hopefully a distant memory for Florida’s version of Reggie Jackson, the straw who will stir the drink for the Gators all season. From the day Napier took one of the most demanding yet potentially rewarding jobs in the sport, he has been pulled in various directions. Given he’s the quarterbacks coach and play caller on top of being tasked with leading the entire program, he never strayed too far from the man known known as “AR.”

Napier is far from the only person whose attention Richardson has commanded. So much so that his new coach has done what he can to keep Richardson insulated, focused on his playbook, his teammates and the forthcoming 2022 season.

“Couldn’t ask for much more just in terms of the humility, the consistency, the attitude. He’s bright. He’s got character. He does all the things that you would want a quarterback to do,” Napier said of Richardson last week.

“The guy, really, is an inexperienced player. I know we all want to put a crown on his head, but the guy has completed 33 passes in his career. The great quarterbacks at the University of Florida, they complete 33 in one game. We’ve got work to do there. We got to get game ready. What does that look like? The guy has prepared for one game as a starter, and I don’t know that he knew the whole week that he was the starter. This is a new experience for him with a new staff with a new system.

“There’s a certain level of responsibility that comes with this, and he’s a young man. As far as what I’m observing is a guy that’s excited about the opportunity. One of the cool things about this kid is he rises to the occasion. The brighter the lights get, the better he is. I want him to bring the same level of urgency to every meeting, every walkthrough, every practice rep. I want the players in the room to change when he walks in the room. I want the players on the field to change when he’s on the field.

“Playing quarterback is a lot about how you influence other people and the expectations you have and your example. That’s a big challenge with Anthony right now is for him to fully embrace, like, ‘I am the standard. Match my detail. Match my intensity. Match my focus. Match my approach.’ If anybody’s got a question about how things should be done about the University of Florida and the football program, they should be able to look at the quarterback and say, ‘OK, I’m going to watch him, and then I’m going to do it like he does it.’”

That’s a tall task for anyone, let alone a team leader without even a full season of playing experience under his belt. Let alone a local product being asked to reverse his hometown team’s fortunes on the biggest stage in the sport. Let alone a self-described “lead-by-example type of guy” who realized the Gators will only get so far until he opens his mouth.

“I noticed, after a while, that wasn’t enough,” Richardson said. “Being able to speak now, I feel like that’s something I’ve been improving on because I’m not really a vocal guy. But now, I think I have a voice and people listen to what I say, so I try and take advantage of that.”

The leadership task began once Napier touched down in Gainesville. It became even more of priority in early April when Richardson made headlines after being clocked driving 105 mph at 4:11 a.m. ET; he was assessed a speeding ticket for going more than 30 mph over the limit. That punishment was handled internally beyond the $349 fine, 12 hours of traffic school and written essay a judge demanded from Richardson given it was his second significant speeding citation in a short period of time.

Napier used Richardson’s screw up as a teachable moment, an example of him not displaying the leadership and maturity that Napier demanded from his starting quarterback. Since expressing significant dismay and disappointment at Richardson’s brush with the law, Napier has done nothing but praise his star pupil.

“Very pleased with Anthony and where he’s at,” the coach said as fall camp began. “He’s getting more comfortable in that leadership role and the things that come with being the quarterback at the University of Florida.”

Napier has pointed out that Richardson’s “confidence and comfort level” with the offense, its verbiage and its execution has come a long way. The quarterback has also improved his accuracy to the point where “he’s processing quicker. He’s able to anticipate, and the ball is going to the right place” the vast majority of the time. That improvement continued until the final practice ahead of game week with Napier saying he’s been particularly pleased with Richardson’s development as the season approached.

He’s not the only one who has seen clear growth and maturity.

“I’ve seen AR put balls in places — I can be in good coverage, and he can put the ball back somewhere, I’m like, ‘Man, that’s the only person I know that can make that play on me,’” said senior linebacker Amari Burney, who also confirmed Richardson has become a more vocal leader. “Even during OTAs, he was putting balls in places where — we’d be right there in coverage like, ‘Wow, OK, he’s that guy for real.’”

Added redshirt junior tight end Dante Zanders: “Everything that y’all see in the games, we see every day more than once [in practice].”

As much as the Gators may want to put on Richardson, an untimely injury has complicated matters. Redshirt freshman Jack Miller III, entrenched as the primary backup quarterback through the offseason, required thumb surgery in the middle of fall camp, a procedure that will keep him out most of the first month of the season. Suddenly, the depth at signal caller took a significant hit with redshirt freshman Jalen Kitna and redshirt sophomore walk-on Kyle Engel rounding out the two-deep in that order.

Napier brushed off the idea of changing the offensive game plan significantly to protect Richardson given his unique importance to the program’s on-field success.

“For us to win, Anthony Richardson — we’re going to play to his strengths,” the coach said. “The guy is a phenomenal athlete. He can make plays with his feet — some of those being designed, some of those being a threat and some of those are unannounced. The key here is that he makes the right decision, and a lot of that is going to be determined depending on our situation at that position. But there’s no question we’re going to use Anthony’s legs. It’s got to be a part of who we are and what we do.”

Richardson, who had to scramble to find more than a dozen tickets so family and friends could watch his first home start, said he was already improving on his decision making before Miller’s injury. He’s spent more time sliding and running out of bounds in practice as a means of avoiding unnecessary hits and preserving himself for later in games.

“Just not trying to be a superhero and take on big hits all the time and trying to hit people,” he explained. “With [Miller] getting hurt, it also shed some light on me having to be even smarter.”

Indeed, staying healthy will be key to success both for Richardson and the Gators as a whole. The signal caller admitted that his nagging ailments last season stuck in his head because he’s constantly worried about “not being on the field, not being able to contribute to the team and not being healthy.” Luckily, he has escaped the offseason program unscathed, and consequently, more confident than ever.

“Being able to go through camp with my teammates and coaches, staying healthy, was a big deal for me,” Richardson said.

The next big deal comes Saturday night inside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium as Florida hosts No. 7 Utah, the defending Pac-12 champions. The Utes are the favorite to repeat atop their conference and perhaps earn a long-sought-after Pac-12 return to the College Football Playoff.

Richardson will take the field with everything he needs: a coaching staff that believes in him, teammates that have his back, plenty of bulletin board material from the offseason for extra motivation and a fan base starved for winning football.

Whether he can replicate Tebow’s record-setting 2007 Heisman Trophy campaign and lead UF to a 9-4 record despite an incomplete roster is a tall, nearly impossible task. What remains true, though: Like that team 15 years ago, these Gators will only go so far as their homegrown, dual-threat, endlessly-talented quarterback will take them.

“I feel like everybody is ready. Everybody is hype,” Richardson said. “They got to come to The Swamp and play us.”

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