Emory Jones’ progression throughout his first season as the Gators’ starting quarterback has defied logic.
In games against Florida Atlantic and South Florida, he threw four interceptions and failed to pass for more than 151 yards in either game. He seemed to take way too long to go through his reads, and he looked tentative when he finally decided to pull the trigger, which resulted in the four interceptions and several more close calls.
Even the most diehard Jones supporter had to be wondering if the Anthony Richardson era was close to beginning at that point. If he couldn’t play better than that against two of the worst teams in the FBS, how in the world was he going to succeed against SEC defenses?
Instead of struggling in conference play, though, the opposite has happened. Jones has flourished. In four SEC games, he’s completed 77.8 percent of his throws for an average of 220 yards per game with seven touchdowns and three interceptions. He’s also averaging 80.8 rushing yards per game in league play.
He was named the SEC co-Offensive Player of the Week after he became the first Gator to throw for 200-plus yards and rush for 100-plus yards in a game against Tennessee. His 218.8 passer rating against Vanderbilt last week ranked first in the SEC and fifth in the FBS.
How has Jones elevated his play as the competition has stiffened?
Coach Dan Mullen said that Jones is making decisions quicker and more confidently now than he was at the beginning of the season, and that’s made a huge difference.
“I think the biggest improvement he’s made is his comfort within his decision-making on gameday of distributing the ball, of where he needs to get to, being comfortable in the pocket, making the reads and the speed of which he makes the reads,” Mullen said. “I think a big result of that is his preparation. I think I’ve really seen him take his preparation to a different level from the beginning of the season within the game week.”
Mullen added that, even though Jones is in his fourth year in the program, there’s a huge adjustment that comes with being the starter. Situations don’t always play out in games the way that they do in practice leading into the game, so it’s important for the quarterback to be able to adjust to any curveballs on gameday. Jones has gotten better at that.
“You go through spring practice and you go through fall camp and you play against our defense, you kind of see a lot of similar looks, and we’re kind of installing and running the same stuff,” Mullen said. “You get comfortable with things. Well, when you get into a game week, that’s when all the variations come in.
“So, I think, all the sudden, early in the season, he thought, ‘I was comfortable. I’m ready to go play the game,’ and he maybe wasn’t as comfortable within the variations that are going to affect the game of how our offense is going to play against this defense in the first week or two. So, I think he’s really changed that approach, and you see that pay dividends on the field.”
Jones said that his focus is on eliminating a couple of bad plays every week. If he can avoid making critical errors that lead to turnovers and missed opportunities, the stats will take care of themselves.
“I think I’ve grown a lot these games that we play,” he said. “The main focus is just eliminating some of the bad plays that I had. The bad plays were really the interceptions and some of the missed reads that I had. There weren’t that many, but it was just literally just eliminating those couple of plays every game and just trying to make sure I do that every single game.
“I always try to be perfect. I know that’s impossible, but I always try and push toward that. It’s always frustrating. It’s confusing when you make a mistake, especially when it’s something that you’ve done hundreds of times before and you’re just like, ‘Why can’t you just do what you did when it was perfect that one time every single time?’ That’s always the most frustrating part for me.”
Offensive lineman Stewart Reese said that Jones has also done a good job of providing leadership and playing to his strengths.
“He’s become a lot more vocal as a quarterback,” he said. “Stepping into the leadership role as a quarterback can be very daunting at times, so him coming in and being able to step in, and, yeah, growing pains at first, but we work with him because, as an offensive line, you’ve got to be in sync with your quarterback.
“The biggest thing is understanding that he’s not Kyle [Trask]. He’s never going to be Kyle. Kyle did what he did for his development and for the benefit of the team. So, Emory has to step in and use the tools that he has to his benefit, so that he can be a great aspect to the team.”
While Jones is a hyper-focused and hard-working quarterback now, he learned a valuable lesson about being ready to play against LSU in 2019. Early in that game, Mullen wanted to insert him into the game to relieve Trask as a change-of-pace option. Jones didn’t expect to go in that early and was caught off guard. He didn’t have his helmet nearby.
“I had my headband all over my eyes, and, before the snap, I was calling the play to the offensive line with my headband over my eyes, couldn’t really see,” Jones said. “That was probably one of the things I do remember. It’s different now. Then I was a backup coming in for a couple of plays. It’s a different feeling. I went out there and made a couple of plays. I felt good out there playing. It’s different now. It’s basically a whole different level. I just have to prepare and make sure we’re ready as a team to go in there and win.”
Jones said that moment in Baton Rouge has stuck with him throughout his career. He doesn’t want to be caught unprepared ever again.
“Coach [Larry] Scott, he came to me and said I need to make sure I’m ready at all times because I could be the guy who comes in and wins this game for us,” he said. “That always stuck with me the rest of the season, really the rest of the time being a backup, just making sure I always have my helmet with me and ready to play at all times.”
As the Gators get ready to play at LSU for the first time since then, Jones is a much different player now. He’s confident, prepared and experienced.
Mullen said that the starting job may have overwhelmed Jones a little bit at the start of the season, but he’s getting better at handling all of his new responsibilities with every passing week. He expects Jones’ growth to continue throughout the rest of his career.
“A lot of that’s the processing, all the processing that goes into it of all the things that you’re asked to do,” Mullen said. “‘I’m up there. Are we in the formation? Is everybody set? What’s the play clock? What’s the protection? Is the protection checked? Do I have the protection handled? Who am I hot off of? Do I have to make a check? Is there a check involved in the play to alert somebody? What’s the pre-snap coverage read? What’s the post-snap coverage read?’
“‘Here’s how they played it; this is where I’m reading the ball to. That’s covered. I get to my second progression, get to my third progression, got to get the ball out.’ There’s a lot that goes into it. Obviously, the more you do it, the better you get at it through the years.”