Florida quarterback Emory Jones could have withered Saturday.
After listening to his fanbase spend two weeks clamoring for his backup (Anthony Richardson), Jones’ Gators fell behind by 18 early against No. 1 Alabama. He threw an interception and was booed at home by one of the largest and loudest crowds in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium history.
But Jones didn’t crumble. He relaxed, looking and feeling more comfortable than he ever has with the Gators. Though he couldn’t complete the comeback to knock off the reigning national champions, Jones finally looked like the player fans have waited years to see.
He looked like a quarterback who can keep No. 11 UF in the championship mix, starting Saturday against Tennessee.
“He can do a lot of things people don’t know about yet,” tight end Kemore Gamble said.
We didn’t get to learn much about Jones through two blowouts. The game plans were too vanilla, the competition too weak.
But as Richardson starred with highlight-reel plays off the bench, Jones was grinding behind the scenes, figuring out what it takes to be the starting quarterback at a big-time program.
“That’s what I learned from the first two games — that I had to do more preparation-wise,” Jones said.
Jones had to prepare more because his role has expanded from the change-of-pace snaps he took through three seasons. He’s the focal point of an offense that’s expected to light up scoreboards and challenge for championships. He’s saddled with what coach Dan Mullen calls “the pressure of exactness and the pressure of detail.”
“It’s the weight of the entire game plan, the weight of the leadership of the team and how the team expects you to lead them,” Mullen said. “There’s a lot that goes with that.”
If the ‘Bama game was any indication, Jones is learning how to handle it all.
Jones didn’t panic after his first-half pick. He and Mullen assessed the play the same way: Jones made the right read under pressure, but the ball sailed on him. Jones moved on. He completed a pass on his next snap and rushed for 11 yards on his second.
Jones wasn’t rattled when his offense was booed on back-to-back plays in the second quarter. He threw a catchable fourth-down deep ball that drew a pass-interference call and set up Malik Davis’ touchdown run.
When he took over at the 1 after a special-teams gaffe, Jones shrugged off that (and back-to-back dropped passes), too. He threw a third-down completion and capped off the 99-yard drive with a touchdown run.
Jones didn’t put up gaudy numbers; he was 18 of 28 for 195 yards and no touchdowns while rushing 19 times for 76 yards and a score. But he was resilient.
In the first half, Jones was 1-of-5 on third/fourth down (but got a pass-inference call on one of those incompletions). In the second, he completed every pass on those downs. Jones atoned for the only third-down stop by hitting Trent Whittemore on the next play to keep the touchdown drive alive.
“I always knew I was a guy that could come back from adversity,” Jones said. “... I wasn’t really worried about anything. I just tried to keep the team going and get us back in the game.”
Though the Gators came up short, Jones did get his team back in a confidence-building performance that looked like a major step in his development.
After Jones played tight through his first two starts, Mullen saw him finally seem comfortable.
“He’s kind of what we expected him to look like,” Mullen said. “He’s kind of relaxed out there making the plays that we’ve seen him make all during training camp.”
It wasn’t enough for Jones to beat the Crimson Tide last week. But it was enough to make you think that he can give his Gators another crack at ‘Bama in the SEC title game.
• • •