GAINESVILLE — When Florida Gators tight end Dante Zanders discussed quarterback Anthony Richardson’s potential Monday, he gave a comparison that was even more fitting than he probably realized.
“He’s Kadarius Toney at the quarterback position,” Zanders said.
Toney was dynamic receiver/rusher/returner for the Gators — a first-round pick who, like Richardson, has elite athleticism and agility.
Toney was also, for most of his UF tenure, completely unpredictable. Former coach Dan Mullen said (more than once) that something exciting would happen whenever Toney touched the ball — you just didn’t know whether it would be good or bad.
And so it is for Richardson, who enters Saturday’s opener against No. 7 Utah as Florida’s unquestioned starting quarterback and the state’s biggest wild card. The hysteria has been building around Richardson since he hurdled his way onto the national scene in last year’s opener. But we still don’t know whether the excitement will end with Richardson becoming a top-10 pick (as some early mock drafts predict), struggling through his sophomore season, or somewhere in between.
“I know we all want to put a crown on his head,” first-year coach Billy Napier said last week. “I mean, the guy has completed 33 passes in his career. The great quarterbacks at the University of Florida, they complete 33 in one game.”
Richardson has actually completed 39, but Napier’s point stands. The sample size is too small to make any declarations.
If you expect Richardson to be UF’s best quarterback since Tim Tebow, there’s evidence to support that. His highlight reel sizzles — a 73-yard touchdown run against Florida Atlantic, an 80-yarder at USF, a game-tying fourth-quarter pass at LSU.
He nearly led a successful comeback against the Tigers, went 5-of-7 with a touchdown to help the Gators beat Florida State in November and was the only quarterback on The Athletic’s annual list of athletic freaks.
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham compared Richardson’s physical tools to Cam Newton’s this week. It was clearly meant as a compliment, but it doubles as a warning. Newton didn’t live up to his potential until after he transferred from UF.
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That doesn’t mean Richardson will get in trouble (beyond his speeding citation this spring) and fizzle out. But if you want to be skeptical, there’s evidence to support that, too.
Of Richardson’s 401 rushing yards, 286 came against three bad teams (FAU, USF and Vanderbilt). He averaged 12.8 yards per pass against those opponents but 6.6 against everyone else. It’s fair to wonder how much the inferior competition affected his success.
Richardson threw six touchdowns and five interceptions last year. Four of those picks were ugly, including one that ended the comeback attempt at LSU. Almost 8 percent of Richardson’s passes last season were interceptions — a rate more than twice as high as Emory Jones.
Mullen — one of the sport’s top quarterback developers — saw every snap and started Jones over Richardson. Though he never fully explained why, he did point out some of Richardson’s misreads. Against FAU, Richardson made a spectacular run … after missing the protection, missing the hot throw and missing the primary read. A similar mistake probably wouldn’t be a highlight against Utah or Kentucky.
Those reads can be fixed, and Napier has praised Richardson’s development in understanding the system and processing plays. But it’s not all on Richardson. The Gators’ receiving corps looks like a liability, which won’t help an inexperienced quarterback. Neither will the fact that Richardson is on his third quarterbacks coach in three seasons.
So which version of Richardson will UF get? If it is the one who shined at USF, the Gators have a legitimate shot at knocking off the Utes and outperforming their Vegas projection of seven wins. If it is the one who struggled against Georgia, then a 1-3 September is possible, if not probable.
All of which makes Zanders’ comparison fitting. We don’t yet know how Richardson’s first year as the full-time starter will go. But, like a Kadarius Toney jet sweep, it will be exciting — one way or the other.
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