GAINESVILLE — Of all the surprising components of the No. 20 Florida Gators’ 2-1 start, the most jarring statistic is this: Future NFL quarterback Anthony Richardson has zero touchdown passes.
“It’s an area of our team where we need to improve, there’s no question about that,” first-year coach Billy Napier said of UF’s passing game. “You can tell that. The average fan can tell that. My wife can. She’s informed me of that.”
Florida fans haven’t been shy about it either, as they witness the longest drought since 2013 (at LSU, at Missouri and vs. Georgia). Include the Gasparilla Bowl loss to UCF, and the Gators’ futility expands to four games. That’s their longest spell since 2010.
The quarterbacks for those stretches were Tyler Murphy — who tried to stick in the NFL at receiver, not quarterback — and John Brantley. And, to add injury to insult, both of them were hurt (Murphy had a sprained throwing shoulder, and Brantley had injuries to his ribs and thumb).
The only other teams without a touchdown pass this season are USF and Hawaii. Even unwatchable Iowa threw one last week.
So what gives with the Gators?
“It’s a little bit of everything,” Richardson said Monday.
Start by crediting the opponents. Utah and Kentucky both rank in the top 10 in opponents’ passing efficiency.
Napier said some of the statistic comes from UF’s reliance on a strong run game. The Gators’ touchdown red-zone percentage (75%) is tied for 36th in the country, so UF is having some scoring success in a different way.
But there are clear concerns. Richardson threw an interception in the end zone against USF, which both he and Napier considered a fine decision that was poorly executed.
Napier stressed a lack of attention to detail across the offense. Are the linemen protecting as the play calls for? Are receivers’ routes the the perfect depth? Is Richardson aiming where he should and going through his progressions correctly?
Some, not all, of those prevision deficiencies are the product of a new coaching staff implementing a new system. Napier said the Gators are “settling into some lineups” and figuring out what they do best and what Richardson is most comfortable with.
Richardson isn’t the only factor — receivers and linemen have to do their job, too — but he’s the biggest one. And after a sensational opener against Utah, he has struggled. He’s doesn’t rank in the top 100 nationally in passing yards (423), and his passer rating (89.0) is 27 points lower than every other starter in the SEC.
Follow the state’s college football teams
Subscribe to our free Florida Football Fix newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
There are a few possible explanations. One, diagnosed by his high school coach, is that Richardson is thinking about too much. Another is that his confidence took a hit from his four interceptions and zero touchdown passes.
“At first, it was definitely getting to me because you’re like, ‘Bro, you’re a quarterback. How come you don’t have any passing touchdowns?’” said Richardson, who added that it no longer affects him.
A third possibility is that he is not 100% healthy, which explains why he has appeared to hobble at times. Richardson discounted that. He said a hit to his previously-injured knee against Kentucky only bothered him for a few plays.
A final option is that UF isn’t using Richardson’s mobility enough, which limits his passing options. Some of that is by design. With four-star Ohio State transfer Jack Miller out with a thumb injury, the Gators have little depth at the position. They don’t want to risk Richardson getting hurt on the run or by plowing through a linebacker instead of sliding.
“I definitely consider it because they tell me every week I’ve got to be careful, can’t take big hits,” Richardson said. “I can’t be Superman out there. ...
“I don’t think it takes me out of my game, just helps me stay a little safer.”
Whatever the issue, the Gators’ passing game is as ineffective as it’s been since the Will Muschamp era. And if they don’t find a way to fix it Saturday at No. 11 Tennessee in ESPN’s College GameDay matchup, they’ll be confronted with another ugly statistic: 2-2, their worst start since 2003.
FSU injury updates
Florida State coach Mike Norvell didn’t have much of an update on quarterback Jordan Travis, defensive end Jared Verse or offensive tackle Robert Scott, who were all injured in the win at Louisville.
Norvell said FSU is “excited about where we are right now” and that they’ll continue to evaluate their injuries leading up to Saturday’s Boston College game.
• • •
Never miss out on the latest with the Bucs, Rays, Lightning, Florida college sports and more. Follow our Tampa Bay Times sports team on Twitter and Facebook.