Jones finally gets his wish

Shortly after he accepted the Florida head coaching job in November 2017, Dan Mullen received a text message from Emory Jones, one of the top high school quarterbacks in America.

Jones had been committed to Ohio State for more than a year, but Mullen was the first coach to offer him a scholarship as a freshman and operated a similar offensive scheme as the Buckeyes.

“[Jones] says, ‘Coach, when this shakes out, be ready. I want to be your quarterback,’” Mullen said at SEC Media Days. “And not, ‘I want to look at Florida. I want to consider this,’ or ‘I’m thinking about flipping schools.’ It was, ‘I want to be your quarterback.’”

It’s been a long wait since then, but, nearly four years later, Jones will finally get to be Mullen’s quarterback.

With incumbent starter Feleipe Franks leaving much to be desired in 2017 and not being a great fit for Mullen’s offense, some wondered if Jones would get a chance to start as a true freshman.

Instead, Franks improved as the 2018 season progressed and started every game.

When Franks suffered a season-ending ankle injury at Kentucky early in the 2019 season, Mullen opted to go with Kyle Trask instead.

All Trask did was rewrite the school single-season record book in 2020, become a Heisman Trophy finalist and get drafted in the second round by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Oh, and there’s a hot-shot redshirt freshman named Anthony Richardson who just looks like an NFL quarterback.

“It has been hard, but it’s all been for a reason,” Jones said in the spring. “That’s what I’ve realized over the past years. I have been playing a little bit, so that keeps me going. I’ve just been watching the guys in front of me do their best and watching how they move and how they operate, and it’s definitely just helping me. It definitely helped me out throughout the way.”

For three seasons, Jones’ career was a textbook example of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He probably could’ve started at 90 percent of Power Five programs over the past three years. Unfortunately, Florida was one of those other 10 percent of teams.

In the transfer portal era where highly recruited players are constantly jumping ship when they don’t get to play much, Jones is one of the more noteworthy exceptions.

He stayed at UF and is about to be rewarded for it. Barring something unforeseen, he will start the Gators’ opener against Florida Atlantic on Sept. 4.

“I think Emory has shown the maturity early on that it wasn’t ‘I have to play from day one,’” Mullen said. “It’s ‘I have to continue to be developed from day one to prepare for my moment and my time,’ and that’s what he’s been able to do.

“I think for a couple years now, he’s learned, he’s grown, he’s developed. He’s a completely different player than he was when he walked in, in his understanding of the game and in his maturity.”

While Jones will be starting for the first time, Mullen was quick to point out that he’s gathered quite a bit of playing experience. In 24 appearances, he’s rushed for 514 yards and six touchdowns on 92 carries and completed 55 of 86 passes for 613 yards with seven touchdowns and just one interception.

When Trask went down with what initially appeared to be a severe leg injury against Auburn in 2019, Jones took over the offense for a couple of series and led the Gators to a field goal. He’s played in three New Year’s Six bowl games, an SEC Championship Game and two Florida-Georgia games.

Mullen shouldn’t have to worry about his first-time starter getting that deer-in-the-headlights look.

“It definitely helps me a lot,” Jones said. “I played in every big game, so, I mean, just starting from my freshman year, I played in the biggest game that year, the Georgia game, and made a couple of plays. And it helps me out now because I’ve been on the big stage, so now I’m more comfortable wherever I am.

“I don’t really put a lot of pressure on myself; that doesn’t really turn out good for me. I’ll just say I have a lot of responsibility. I mean, I’ve been waiting for this time right here.”

Of course, the offense will look very different this season with Jones behind center. Mullen said one of the keys to crafting potent offenses and developing quarterbacks is to identify their strengths and weaknesses and tweak the scheme to fit what the players do best.

In Jones’ case, that means you can probably say goodbye to five-receiver sets and throwing the ball 40 times per game and say hello to a ball-control-based, run-heavy attack that takes advantage of Jones’ athleticism.

It didn’t happen as quickly as Jones or anybody else anticipated, but this is now his team, his offense and his time to leave a legacy.

Jones is finally Mullen’s quarterback.

Ethan was born in Gainesville and has lived in the Starke, Florida, area his entire life. He played basketball for five years and knew he wanted to be a sportswriter when he was in middle school. He’s attended countless Gators athletic events since his early childhood, with baseball being his favorite sport to attend. He’s a proud 2019 graduate of the University of Florida and a 2017 graduate of Santa Fe College. He interned with the University Athletic Association’s communications department for 1 ½ years as a student and has spent the last two football seasons writing for InsideTheGators.com. He is a long-suffering fan of the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Tampa Bay Rays. You can follow him on Twitter @ehughes97.