If there’s one consistent concern about Emory Jones for the 2021 season, it’s how high his accuracy will be. Those who saw him on the spring practice streams didn’t see a guy who was consistently off. He would have a few good throws in a row and then uncork one that went visibly awry.
Jones has had all summer to work on things, and Dan Mullen has said multiple times that the Jones of even the end of spring looked like a better player than at the beginning. He may yet turn out to be plenty accurate for what Florida needs from him.
Still though, what does “plenty accurate for what Florida needs from him” actually mean? There are two main components to this question.
The bigger question is the second half of the statement. What UF needs is dependent on what your expectation of the team is. Do you want to see the Gators challenging Alabama in Week 3 and giving Georgia an honest run for its money in the East? That’s a higher bar than getting back to ten total wins after winning in a New Year’s Six bowl.
As it happens, Florida got to exactly ten total wins after winning a New Year’s Six bowl in Mullen’s first year. That was with a defense that, as I alluded to here and Will Miles has gone into more depth on, wasn’t actually all that great by the Gators’ normal standards.
In that season, the starting quarterback Feleipe Franks had a completion percentage of 58.4%. Completion percentage isn’t everything in regards to accuracy; it doesn’t account for drops and throwaways, nor the cost/benefit calculation of a safe, short throw versus an uncertain deep throw. Regardless, it’s good enough for the moment.
That figure was a modest improvement over Franks’s 54.6% rate from Jim McElwain’s last year, and despite Franks struggling enough periodically to get benched in a blowout at one point, it was enough to help that iffy defense get the team to double-digit wins in the end. Franks went way above those performances as a redshirt junior in limited action the following year, including 63% completions against Miami and 70.6% against Kentucky before getting hurt. His inconsistent judgment was still on display with three picks in 44 attempts against P5 competition (a poor 6.8% INT rate), but his accuracy had noticeably improved.
Kyle Trask saw similar improvements over time. After completing 55% in garbage time against Missouri in his one stint of action in ’18, he completed 66.9% of his throws in 2019 as a redshirt junior and 68.9% as a fifth-year senior in 2020.
I bring up all of that, including Trask’s minuscule 2018 action, because I think it’s relevant to how Jones is being perceived at present. The Cotton Bowl is the only extended action that Jones has gotten during a contested game, and he completed just 8-of-16 for an even 50% completions. The stereotype of excellent rushers who play quarterback is that they will struggle with the pass, and that performance plays right into it.
I don’t think Jones will be the passer Trask was, nor does he have to be with his wheels. However as we just saw with the big Texan, one partial game performance doesn’t necessarily predict the future. Besides, the Gators’ receivers and tight ends had butterfingers in that contest. SEC Stat Cat counts three drops in those 16 tosses. His completion percentage adjusts to 61.5% if you eliminate those throws and make him 8-for-13. It’s still not eye-popping, but it’s a lot less heartburn-inducing than 50% is. He also had a throwaway and a pass batted down at the line. Remove those as well and he’s at 8-for-11 for 72%. Not too shabby.
I also brought up all of that because Mullen quarterbacks tend to be more accurate once they hit upperclassman status. His first multi-year starter at Mississippi State was Chris Relf. Despite being the sort of mobile QB who actually did struggle to hit the broad side of a barn at times, he completed 59% as a junior in 2010 and 60.0% as a senior in partially injury-affected play. Both of those surpass the mark the sophomore Franks had in 2018.
The first Mullen QB recruit to start in Starkville was Tyler Russell. He completed 53.5% in 129 attempts as a sophomore while alternately backing up and filling in for Relf. He about equalled 2018 Franks with an improved 58.6% mark as the starter while a junior, and he hit 65.1% in injury-shortened action as a senior. Dak Prescott went from 58.4% (there’s that number again) as a sophomore to 61.6% as a junior and 66.2% as a senior.
Only Nick Fitzgerald, a triple option guy in high school who Mullen stole from UT-Chattanooga, didn’t meet or exceed Franks’s sophomore completion percentage as an upperclassman. He went from 54.3% as a sophomore in 2016 to just 55.6% as a junior. As a senior without Mullen’s expertise in tailoring the offense to his talent, Fitzgerald sank to 51.6% in 2018. He’s the exception that proves the rule.
So if we’re setting the over/under on Jones’s 2021 completion percentage at 58.4%, I’d feel confident in taking the over. I’d take the over on 60% and maybe even something like 63% as well. He’ll probably throw a bunch to the running backs since at least two of them are terrific receivers, and he’ll probably toss plenty of safe screens and slants on RPOs.
Here we’re coming back to the limitations of completion percentage. If Jones is completing 66% of his throws but for 7.1 yards per completion, we’re probably looking at a significant offensive regression. Franks went for 7.6 yards/att in 2018 despite having almost no practical limit to how far he can throw. Trask went over eight per toss in 2019 and was a hair under ten in 2020.
It’s the accuracy on the intermediate and long throws that will count most, since you can’t dink-and-dunk your way past Nick Saban or teams as talented as this year’s Georgia. If he can approach 60% in the intermediate range and get almost to a coin flip’s 50% in deeper throws — below Trask’s rates from a year ago but not too far off — then the offense with the enhanced rushing game will be dangerous indeed. Get significantly behind those rates and defenses will be content to single-cover anything beyond about ten yards upfield and load up against those runs and short throws.
In short, Jones will have a perfectly respectable completion percentage this season. He doesn’t have to get to Trask-like levels to guide the Gators to a fourth-straight New Year’s Six bowl, and how much the defense does or doesn’t improve will go just as far in determining the team’s ceiling. To help restore the momentum the team had before one foggy night in Gainesville though, he’ll need to comfortably top 50% in throws longer than ten yards upfield to make defenses worry about the entire field.