Florida quarterback Emory Jones didn’t want to overstate his status after the Gators’ first spring practice Thursday.
The starting job, technically, is undecided after the departure of Heisman Trophy finalist Kyle Trask. And Jones has a talented redshirt freshman, former four-star recruit Anthony Richardson, pushing him for playing time.
But Jones also knows the truth surrounding the glamor position in Gainesville. With Trask headed to the NFL, it’s almost certainly Jones’ time to shine.
“I’ve been waiting for this time right here,” UF’s heir apparent said Thursday evening.
Jones’ wait started almost six years ago when he got his first scholarship offer at the end of his freshman year of high school. The coach who gave him that offer? Dan Mullen, who was then at Mississippi State.
When Mullen arrived at UF after the 2017 season, the Gators already had an oral commitment from a quarterback (four-star prospect Matt Corral), and Jones had pledged to Urban Meyer’s Buckeyes. But Mullen kept recruiting Jones, visiting him at his mother’s house in the runup to signing day.
“God works in funny ways sometimes,” Mullen said in 2017. “That we were the first, and we were the last.”
Corral backed off and signed with Ole Miss. Jones, the nation’s No. 85 prospect, flipped to UF.
The wait continued.
The Georgia native saw limited action in 2018 behind starter Feleipe Franks. When Franks got hurt against Kentucky the next year, Trask, not Jones, took over. Jones was relegated to mop-up duty and a change-of-pace package.
Those occasional opportunities — a deep ball against Georgia as a freshman, nine rushes at eventual national champion LSU in 2019 — gave him the confidence that he can play at a high level. They kept him going.
“It has been hard,” Jones said, “but it’s all been for a reason.”
The reason: development.
Mullen has a long history of grooming quarterbacks, from Alex Smith at Utah to Tim Tebow at UF to Dak Prescott at Mississippi State. The two passers who started in front of Jones at UF (Trask and Franks) could both be drafted this spring. Jones needed time to watch them, learn from them and prepare for his opportunity.
“When I first got here the first thing (Mullen) always said to me was, ‘Development, development, development,’” Jones said. “And I always tried to keep that in the back of my head.”
The development finally turned into deployment against Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl. With a roster decimated by opt-outs and injuries, UF used the game as more of a tune-up for 2021 than an extension of 2020.
In the most significant action of his career, Jones accounted for 148 yards of offense and a touchdown in the 55-20 blowout.
“It really was an eye-opening experience to me, just going out there and actually getting a lot of reps,” Jones said. “I mean, it really just showed me that me and the guys have a lot of work to do.”
But if they can complete that work, and if Jones has progressed properly over the past three years, UF’s offense has a chance to be one of the best in the country.
Mullen’s offense requires a quarterback who is willing to run, as Franks and Trask were. The difference is that Jones is willing and able to tuck the ball and turn upfield.
At 6-foot-2, 210 pounds, he’s not as massive as Tebow or Prescott. He’s more slippery and quick with breakaway potential. Six of his 32 carries last season went for at least 10 yards. Only one Gator (running back Dameon Pierce) had more, but Pierce needed 74 extra rushes to get three more explosive runs.
The potential, clearly, is there for Jones to become a dynamic weapon Mullen can build an offense around.
“Emory, he’s a great quarterback — great running quarterback, great passing quarterback,” receiver Justin Shorter said. “He’s really great with everything he does.”
Shorter has seen it in practice, but the rest of us haven’t yet. A few plays here and there and a no-win situation against the Sooners aren’t enough to judge Jones’ true abilities.
Which means we’re stuck doing the same thing Jones has done for the past three years.
Waiting to see what he can do.