ATLANTA — Florida Gators quarterback Anthony Richardson has been on the cover of preseason magazines, mentioned as a possible top-10 NFL draft pick and gone viral with a 73-yard throw at the Manning Passing Academy.
It’s a lot of pressure for anyone in an offseason, let alone a 20-year-old with 39 career completions and roughly 220 collegiate snaps to his name. His coach isn’t worried.
“He’s up for the challenge,” Billy Napier said.
After listening to Richardson schmooze his way around the College Football Hall of Fame during SEC media days Wednesday, it’s easy to see why Napier has so much faith in the first-year starter.
Richardson was poised in the suit he got off Amazon. He cracked jokes, praised his teammates and shouldered the blame from his lone start, a loss to Georgia that still stings.
More importantly, he described actions that show the maturity he’ll need to succeed at one of the most high-profile positions in college sports.
He no longer uses the fast Dodge he did this spring when he was stopped for going more than 105 mph.
“I’ve got to stay away from those,” he said.
Instead, he drives a Toyota Camry he described as “smooth.”
When Richardson explained why he shed his AR-15 nickname over the weekend, he didn’t cite a specific shooting or incident. He said it was an acknowledgement that football, eventually, will end for him. When it does, he doesn’t want an old moniker and jersey number to derail his future business career.
“AR-15 doesn’t necessarily describe who I am,” he said. “I’m Anthony Richardson.”
So who is Anthony Richardson? On the field, the answer remains unclear.
For one reason or another, he failed to beat out Emory Jones for the starting job. Most of his unbelievable flashes came in garbage time against bad teams (USF and Florida Atlantic) and a loss at LSU. Richardson’s career stat line: 10 total touchdowns, six interceptions. Some measure of skepticism is deserved.
But you don’t earn first-round buzz and cover photos without sky-high ability. His arm strength is elite. Last season’s leap over a Florida Atlantic defender looked like something out of a Lamar Jackson highlight reel.
“He’s a phenomenal talent,” Napier said, “and I’m looking forward to (seeing) all that potential turn into performance.”
For Richardson’s performances start to match his potential consistently, he will have to show more maturity in every part of his life. Just ask him.
“There’s a lot riding on me,” Richardson said. “There’s a lot of people looking up to me, looking out for me. I have to move differently now that I’m the guy.”
There are signs that Richardson is ready to thrive in that role.
He has put in extra work to gain teammates’ trust. He takes receiver Xzavier Henderson to a Japanese steakhouse every week to strengthen their relationship. After battling injuries for two years, he’s spending more time stretching and in the training room to take care of his body.
“He just knows that there’s a lot of pressure,” offensive lineman Richard Gouraige said, “but he’s going to live up to it.”
The team is counting on it.
Florida’s roster is, by SEC standards, unspectacular. If the Gators are going to exceed the muted expectations that accompany Napier’s first season, Richardson will probably need to steal a win or two on his own. If he doesn’t, UF seems destined for another middling bowl game and another fall of disappointment.
That’s how important Richardson is to this team and, potentially, the long-term trajectory of his hometown program. Richardson isn’t shying away from the expectations.
“It’s a big deal when people say you’re the face of the program,” Richardson said. “I don’t take that for granted.”
He showed that Wednesday through his actions and words. This fall, we’ll finally be able to see whether he can show it on the field, too.
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