Notebook: Mullen hopeful that Richardson can play against Alabama

It turns out that there is one thing that can slow down UF quarterback Anthony Richardson – his own right hamstring.

Richardson slowed down during the final 15 yards or so of his 80-yard touchdown run at South Florida on Saturday. He hobbled off of the field while holding the back of his leg after he crossed the goal line. He visited the trainer and returned to the sideline with a wrap on his leg for the remainder of the game. He was still walking gingerly when he got on the bus to head back to Gainesville after the game.

Given Richardson’s propensity to create big plays and the fact that No. 1 Alabama visits the Swamp this weekend, Richardson’s status figures to be one of the most talked about subjects this week.

On Monday, coach Dan Mullen said that he’ll be evaluated throughout the week.

“I think he’s doing good,” Mullen said. “Saw him today watching the film. He kind of had some tightness in his hamstring. He’ll do treatment, and we’ll see how he’ll be this week. We expect him to practice, and we’ll see how he comes along at practice and deals with it during the week.”

The Gators are also dealing with a few more key injuries. Starting middle linebacker Ventrell Miller and right tackle Jean Delance left the USF game with undisclosed injuries. Reserve cornerback Elijah Blades didn’t play against the Bulls.

Mullen is hopeful to get the trio back this week.

“I’ll find out more with Ventrell today,” he said. “The other two, Blades had a sore hamstring and just didn’t feel like he could go on it to play at the level he needed, wanted to play at. Jean was just a bruise. We expect him to be back out there today or tomorrow practicing.”

The biggest blow among those three would be Miller. He led the team in tackles in 2020 and is one of the defense’s biggest vocal leaders.

Defensive end Zachary Carter is confident that they can adequately fill Miller’s leadership void if needed.

“We have a lot of guys that have a veteran presence on the defense,” Carter said. “We’ve got some guys that transferred in that they’re pretty much some of the oldest guys on the defense with the most experience. Ventrell, he’s a great guy and a great teammate, great leader, but I feel like we shouldn’t have an issue picking up with that leadership role. Guys just have to step up; they have to step up.”

Mullen sticking with his plan at QB

Gators fans are very passionate and opinionated when it comes to the quarterback spot. And they should be. After all, they’ve seen what great quarterbacking looks like in the form of Steve Spurrier (for the older generation), Shane Matthews, Danny Wuerffel, Rex Grossman, Tim Tebow, and, most recently, Kyle Trask.

Richardson has shown signs that he might one day deserve to be mentioned as part of the same list as those guys. Meanwhile, Emory Jones has struggled. So, as expected, there are a ton of people calling for Mullen to make Richardson the starting quarterback.

Mullen, however, isn’t interested in what the outside world has to say.

“I’ll be honest with you, I don’t listen to many suggestions,” he said. “If you’re in our staff meeting, I’m going to listen to your suggestion. I don’t know. I don’t run down to Shands Hospital and say, ‘Boy, I think you should really do that procedure this way.’ I think those guys probably got that under control, you know? So, they’re the people, they’re the experts who are doing it.”

Mullen said they go into a game with a plan for when Richardson will play. For the first two games, that meant that Richardson saw his first action on the third drive. Mullen said he plans to stick to a similar formula moving forward.

“We kind of go in with a plan depending on the game,” he said. “There are some circumstances maybe that would change that, but everybody is kind of on plan going into the game that ‘Hey, you’re going to play the third series.’ We have that going in, and we know what we’re going to do. Now, there are circumstances that could affect that, and there were Saturday circumstances that would affect if he went in and when he went in. So, that’s always up there changing.”

Mullen has handled the quarterback position very differently throughout his career. This year, two players are seeing significant action. The past three years, he had one guy who played the majority of the snaps and brought in Jones for a few plays here and there. Dak Prescott and Nick Fitzgerald earned the right to play almost every snap for him at Mississippi State. Ditto for Alex Smith at Utah.

And then, of course, there was the way he incorporated Tebow into the game plans in 2006 despite being Chris Leak’s backup.

So, what exactly goes into deciding how many quarterbacks to play in a game and how to play them? Mullen said it’s a complicated process.

“It’s so flexible in so many different scenarios and situations that you get into depending on your roster, your team, the makeup, the experience of the players that you have,” Mullen said. “There’s so much that goes into that, and it’s not just at the quarterback position. It’s the team as a whole of ‘Who’s going to give you the best opportunity to win this game? Are we developing guys? Who’s the best decision-maker out there leading the team?’

“I’ve been either a quarterback coach or an offensive coordinator or head coach now for a long time with a lot of different situations and different scenarios that you look at. Some cause you to have one quarterback and another one come in to run a certain package. Other situations cause you to rotate them a little bit more. Some you kind of, like, you’re set; this is the guy that’s going to help us because both guys have experience. I don’t have to roll them in to get them experience, to get them prepared to play. I think there’s so much that goes into that with every situation.”

Receiver Jacob Copeland, who caught touchdown passes of 75 and 41 yards from Richardson against USF, said that he’s confident in both of the quarterbacks. The Jones versus Richardson debate hasn’t found its way into the UF locker room.

“Both of them, to me, are still going to make the plays they’re going to make, regardless of what anybody says about them,” Copeland said. “What they say about Emory, what they say about Ant, they’re both great players. I see it every day in practice. They keep the team going and keep the team motivated regardless. If they make mistakes, they keep going, and they’re going to come back together, make it happen and do what they do.”

Richardson’s missed reads

One of the primary things Mullen has pointed to as the reason why Richardson is still the backup is that he needs to improve his decision-making.

There’s more to playing quarterback at an elite level than stiff-arming defenders to the ground and jumping over guys. Sometimes, Richardson makes the wrong read on a play but turns it into an explosive play with his athleticism and instincts. Those plays might be entertaining to fans, but they can be frustrating to Mullen.

You can’t rely on merely being a superior athlete to play quarterback. Eventually, Richardson will play against a defense that’s capable of preventing 70-yard touchdown runs. That’s why it’s important for him to make the right decisions on protections, where to throw the ball and whether to hand the ball off or not on option plays.

On Monday, Mullen offered an example of an exciting play by Richardson that was actually the result of several poor decisions by him.

“An easy one would be if you go back a couple games, he drops back, misses a protection check, then misses the hot throw, then misses the primary read and then scrambles around and runs and everybody thinks, ‘What a spectacular play,’” he said.

Gators looking for cleaner execution

The Gators have played more than well enough to win their first two games against Florida Atlantic and South Florida, but there are still a bunch of improvements that they need to make as they transition into SEC play.

Offensively, the Gators lead the SEC with 609.5 total yards per game, but they’re only sixth in the league with 38.5 points per game. That disparity can be attributed to four interceptions and three red-zone trips where they’ve come away with zero points.

Defensively, they’ve given up 31 points in the second half after surrendering just three in the first half. When the offense has put them in bad situations, they haven’t responded as well as they’d like.

“I think we’re doing really good as a group,” Carter said. “Guys are starting to gel together pretty nice. I just feel like we haven’t played up to that standard that I know we could play to yet. We’ve been doing pretty good, though, as a group, but I just know, week-by-week, as we continue to build as a group that we will tap into another level.”

Mullen knows that they can’t afford to squander opportunities in conference games. The margin for error is extremely thin.

“I have pretty high standards, so I think we can get a lot better,” Mullen said. “You look – and I don’t want to downplay it – you look at last week’s game, we had a bunch of yards, put up a bunch of explosive plays. I think we left a lot on the field, though. There was a lot of opportunities for us to play better football as a team all around. You look at 17 of their points came on drives that started on the plus-side of the field; two as a result of the offense and one as a result of special teams.

“Now the defense has got to go stop them, but the offense [and] special teams put our defense in a bad situation. We didn’t have the ball to start one time on the plus-side of the field in that last game. So, you look, there’s a lot of little things we’ve got to improve on to play high-level football, not just count on making big play after big play offensively and defensively.”

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.

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