Dan Mullen essentially named Emory Jones his starting quarterback after spring. He did his normal thing of trying to add caveats, this time about wanting to have two starting-caliber quarterbacks. As you’ll remember from 2019, it’s a pretty handy thing if you can manage it.
The various leaks from spring practice were not terribly glowing about Jones. According to those who think they know, he did not put a great distance between himself and backup Anthony Richardson. It doesn’t necessarily mean UF is in trouble behind center next year, though.
The Occam’s razor explanation that emerges from the various leaks is this: Florida didn’t have Jones do much running and instead worked him extensively as a passer. This is as it should be. No program wants its quarterbacks taking hits in spring practice, and in the best time to work on player development, it can make a lot of sense to push your players on the areas where they need improvement.
It sounds as though the regimen paid off, too. The reports from the third scrimmage were more encouraging for Jones as a passer. He still has a lot of work to do over the offseason to polish some kinds of passes and get timing down with his targets, but such is true for any first-time starter.
I am not too worried about it because Jones will be able to run some in the fall. How much he will run is an open question.
On the one hand, the 2021 Gators have by far the deepest running back room Mullen has ever had. Dameon Pierce is a bruiser, Nay’Quan Wright is highly versatile, Malik Davis can make guys miss, Lorenzo Lingard is exceptionally fast, and Demarkcus Bowman might have the best overall package of skills of all of them. If Mullen wants to move the ball on the ground, he has a lot of clubs in his bag to match the situation exactly.
On the other, Mullen has a history of running his mobile quarterbacks a lot initially before backing off later. These rushing attempt figures don’t have sacks taken out because that information isn’t readily available for specific quarterbacks, but the differences in sacks allowed per game for any of the pairs of teams cited is less than one per contest. They’re not enough to change the gaps significantly.
- Tim Tebow: 16.2 rushing attempts per game in 2007, 12.6 in 2008
- Chris Relf: 15.0 per game in 2010, 11.2 in 2011
- Dak Prescott: 16.2 per game in 2014, 12.3 in 2015
- Nick Fitzgerald: 15.0 per game in 2016, 13.5 per game in 2017
You can drop those numbers by one for Tebow and Fitzgerald and about two for Relf and Prescott to get an idea of what the sack-adjusted figures would look like. I’ll also note that the 2015 Bulldogs were Mullen’s most pass-heavy team prior to 2020, so Prescott’s reduced rushing is partially a consequence of scheme changes. If you assign every one of the team’s 2.5 sacks per game allowed to him (not a bad assumption given pass attempt totals), Prescott was just under ten per game that year from a deemphasis of the run.
Jones has not played enough outside of garbage time or specific run-centric packages to get a precise idea of how Mullen plans to use him this year. The closest thing we have is him splitting time with Kyle Trask in the Cotton Bowl, and he had ten rushing attempts in that game.
Despite the depth at running back, it would not be unreasonable to expect to see Jones at or above ten rushes per game. In addition to planned quarterback runs on Power or sneaks or what have you, Jones will sometimes keep the ball on option plays and scramble on called pass plays. He’ll also take at least a sack a game — it’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t outside of triple option offenses — and those sadly still count as rushes in the official NCAA stats.
The incredible stable of backs does mean that Jones may be on the lower end of those rates you see above. One factor in a couple of those rushing decreases is the emergence of one or two running backs to take more of the load. Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps collectively ran about 60 more times in 2008 than Kestahn Moore did in 2007. Aeris Williams ran about 100 more times in 2017 than 2016. When there are backs to help spread the load, Mullen will do it.
The potential improvement of the defense will help decide things as well. Jones will carry the ball less often when the team has a comfortable lead. The offense with Jones will have to score points to get those leads, but the defense helping maintain them will keep him from having to run 18 times to pull out a squeaker over Kentucky or something.
Even if Jones’s rushes, scrambles, and sacks only hover around ten per game, we’re still talking about one out of every seven plays going in the standard stat sheet as carries by him. If we give him 40% of the team’s plays as pass attempts, which is about what Prescott had in his first full year of starting in 2014, about 55% of the team’s plays will be on Jones.
It’s not the huge load Trask had a year ago when just under 60% of all team plays were rushes or passes by him, but it’s not far off either. And with Jones gaining more than six yards per carry behind suspect offensive lines with a heavy run expectation the last two years, it’d be a strategic blunder not to have him carry the ball quite a bit while he throws far less often than his predecessor.
With five good options at running back, at least seven at receiver, and three or four at tight end, there will be plenty of guys around to help Jones from having to do everything himself. Still, if Mullen’s history as a play caller is any real indication, the nature of the offense he’ll be running means he’ll probably be into the low double digits in rushing attempts per game.