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Gators’ Emory Jones ready to live up to hype from the pass that didn’t count

As a freshman against Georgia, Jones’ gorgeous pass had Van Jefferson thinking Jones could win a national title. Now’s his chance.
Emory Jones, the Florida Gators quarterback, is set to try to live up to the hype he set with his first career throw, against Georgia in 2018.
Emory Jones, the Florida Gators quarterback, is set to try to live up to the hype he set with his first career throw, against Georgia in 2018. [ JOHN RAOUX | AP (2019) ]
Published Aug. 31
Updated Sep. 1

To understand the intrigue surrounding Florida Gators quarterback Emory Jones, go back to his first collegiate pass attempt. The one that didn’t count.

It was two months into his freshman season, against Georgia. Jones came on in a brief change-of-pace package and unleashed a play-action bomb that flew 50 perfect yards downfield to Van Jefferson.

Sure, the ball hit the ground because of a defensive pass interference penalty. But that didn’t take away from the fact that an 18-year-old third-stringer with zero career attempts entered the fourth quarter of a close game against a highly ranked archrival and fired a gorgeous, gutsy pass that could have been a touchdown.

The hype exploded.

Related: What will Gators’ 2021 offense look like under Emory Jones?

“I feel like,” Jefferson said afterward, “he’s going to lead this program to a national championship in time.”

Three years later, Jones finally has that chance, beginning Saturday with his first career start against Florida Atlantic.

If No. 13 UF is going to challenge for a championship of any kind, it will be because Jones leads them there. It will be because the 6-foot-2, 211-pound Georgia native becomes the type of player Dan Mullen envisioned more than six years ago.

And it will be because Emory Jones lives up to the buzz that began building long before the pass that didn’t count.

Emory Jones, wearing No. 14 here, entered his first spring practice as one of the Florida Gators' top recruits.
Emory Jones, wearing No. 14 here, entered his first spring practice as one of the Florida Gators' top recruits. [ Times (2018) ]

The first offer

Mullen was still at Mississippi State when he first spotted Jones’ potential. He loved the strong arm, quick release and great athleticism Jones showed as a high school freshman so much that his Bulldogs offered Jones a scholarship the next spring — nine months before anyone else.

As Mullen scouted him more, he noticed the way Jones hit as a free safety. That showed the team-first intangibles Mullen seeks in his quarterbacks.

“It starts there, of somebody that has that mindset,” Mullen said.

Related: The 13 transfers who will shape Florida’s college football season

It didn’t end there, though. Recruiting is rarely so easy.

Jones blossomed into a top-100 national prospect and committed to Ohio State and Mullen’s former boss, Urban Meyer. When Mullen took over the Gators after the 2017 season, UF already had a commitment from a blue-chip quarterback (Matt Corral). None of that stopped Jones from texting Mullen soon after he switched jobs: I’m your man. I’m going to help you win championships at Florida.

Jones flipped to UF on signing day, giving Mullen an enormous win in his first recruiting class and giving the Gators their quarterback of the future.

Related: Early win for Dan Mullen, Gators: flipping a top QB recruit

A future that started to come into focus that afternoon in Jacksonville.

Emory Jones played sparingly as a freshman against Georgia but left a strong impression on his teammates.
Emory Jones played sparingly as a freshman against Georgia but left a strong impression on his teammates. [ JOHN RAOUX | AP (2018) ]

Checking a box

The buildup to the top-10 showdown centered on whether one of the teams would use the extra week of preparation to break in a freshman quarterback. Would the Bulldogs bench Jake Fromm for Justin Fields?

That didn’t happen. Instead, Mullen used UF’s biggest game of the year as a chance to give his freshman quarterback the first meaningful snaps of his career.

At the time, Mullen said he played Jones because his athleticism could create some running abilities that then-starter Feleipe Franks couldn’t. That wasn’t the whole story. Mullen was checking a box in Jones’ long-term development.

Jones could get mop-up reps in blowouts, but Mullen needed him to gain experience against big-time opponents in big-time environments to prepare him for the kinds of games he’d eventually be starting. That’s why Jones split his four redshirt games between two routs (Charleston Southern and Idaho) and two marquee matchups (Georgia and the Peach Bowl against Michigan).

Related: Emory Jones ready to compete for Gators’ starting job

“There’s always a strategy behind why you do it,” Mullen said.

That strategy leads to this weekend.

A launch toward the future

Emory Jones has been the Florida Gators' No. 1 quarterback during preseason camp.
Emory Jones has been the Florida Gators' No. 1 quarterback during preseason camp. [ COURTNEY CULBREATH | Courtesy of University Athletic Association ]

Of course Jones remembers the pass that didn’t count. Before the snap, Jones told Jefferson he was going to move the safety out of his way — a veteran thing for a freshman to say and do.

“And if you run past him,” Jones said, “I’m about to launch it.”

Jones rushed 7 yards on the previous play, so Georgia had to respect his running ability. When Jones faked a handoff, it convinced the safety not to drop into pass coverage immediately.

The pause gave Jefferson a little more space as he ran past his defender. Jones launched it effortlessly.

“Everybody was excited about that right there,” Jones said recently.

The excitement was warranted. It showed the thrilling potential of UF’s quarterback of the future.

Related: We ranked all 78 Florida college football games from worst to first

But it wasn’t a completion, let alone a touchdown. The drive (which Franks finished) stalled immediately afterward and ended in a field goal. UF lost by three scores.

And that’s where the Gators and Jones are through three years. He has flashed plenty of promise with a 7:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio and 6.4 yards per rush over the last two seasons. But they were just flashes from a role player at a program still searching for an SEC title.

Now it’s time to see if those flashes can become beacons that will lead UF to a championship.

Florida quarterback Emory Jones, right, scrambles from the pocket as he tries to get past Idaho defensive back Tyrese Dedmon, left, during a 2018 game in Gainesville.
Florida quarterback Emory Jones, right, scrambles from the pocket as he tries to get past Idaho defensive back Tyrese Dedmon, left, during a 2018 game in Gainesville. [ JOHN RAOUX | AP (2018) ]

The pieces are in place for it. After Mullen maximized Franks’ abilities and turned Kyle Trask into a star, he finally has a quarterback he recruited — the hand-picked successor he identified before anyone else and became the first passer he signed.

Mullen doesn’t expect Jones to be as consistent as Trask, and that’s okay. Jones can make up for it with his ability to make throws Trask never could and by generating more explosive plays.

Mullen likes to say that his quarterback only needs to be a willing runner, as Franks and Trask were. Jones is willing and able. He’s not as big as Tim Tebow (whom Mullen coached as a UF assistant) or as fast as Nick Fitzgerald (Mullen’s last Mississippi State starter), but he’s slippery.

Combine his elusiveness with a deep running back room that’s one of the roster’s biggest strengths, and Mullen has the framework for an explosive ground game. That threat, as Georgia showed, can lead to more aerial openings because of Jones’ overlooked arm strength.

“I call Emory a mobile pocket passer,” running back Dameon Pierce said, “because this guy, he can launch that ball.”

That was clear back in Jacksonville with the first real throw Jones ever attempted at UF. The one that drew the flag, hit the dirt and left Jefferson — now a second-year receiver with the Rams — thinking his 18-year-old teammate can bring a title to Gainesville.

Here’s his chance.

After three years of watching, learning and waiting, Jones is finally the starter, ready to live up to his blue-chip hype. The big opportunities are coming.

And this time, Jones will have to make them count.

Related: Why Jesuit alumnus Malik Davis is the Gators’ X-factor

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