Things Florida can do to jumpstart its struggling offense

I defended Gator fans against accusations of impatience a couple times over the offseason. There is a difference between impatience and not accepting bad process. All of the Florida head coaches that have been fired this century, and there are several of them, all committed sins of bad process from the start. All of them were ultimately fired for the things that some fans complained about from their first seasons: bad management (Zook), bad offense (Muschamp, McElwain), and subpar recruiting (Mac, Mullen).

Three games into the first year, it’s too early to declare anything to be indisputably bad process with Billy Napier. The last time a vocal minority of the fan base went there, it was right after Jaden Rashada committed to Miami. Shortly after, the Gators went on a tear of 4-star commits to completely change the 2023 recruiting picture and quickly climb the rankings.

Even with that in mind, a quarter of the season is enough time to start drawing some conclusions about what needs to be fixed to improve the team’s trajectory. After all, part of good process is recognizing when things aren’t working and then doing other things.

There are things they can’t do midseason, like overhaul the roster or install entirely new schemes. However the offense in particular needs some help, and some of the necessary changes are doable even on short notice. Here are some of them.

Find a new way to keep defenses honest

This is a quick and easy one.

Napier’s offense is not a spread scheme. Even so, he still has to periodically attack horizontally to keep defenses from always loading the box. However, Napier’s primary way of doing it hasn’t worked.

GC’s Nick Marcinko ran the numbers and found that the screens and sweeps to Xzavier Henderson have netted 23 yards on ten attempts for 2.3 yards per play.

Henderson did make a guy miss to pick up a key first down late against Utah, but generally the plays have disappointed. Henderson is one of the fastest players on the team, but it’s mostly straight-line speed. He doesn’t have the wiggle to make these plays work consistently, and the generally terrible blocking on the bubble screens hasn’t helped either. It’s time to try something else.

More option

I quickly ran through every offensive play of the year in advance of writing this (thanks, libgator), and you can tell a real difference in Anthony Richardson against Utah versus the next two games even setting aside his differing effectiveness in those games. His general appearance and body language across the contests was remarkably different.

Gator Nation Football Podcast cohost James Di Virgilio, who’s not a reporter but who is very close to the program, said on this week’s episode that he’s been told that Richardson sustained an unspecified lower body injury in practice between the Utah and Kentucky games.

If true, and I don’t have a good reason to doubt Di Virgilio’s word, it would explain why Richardson lacked the spark of athletic creativity he showed against the Utes in the games against UK and USF. The guy who was ultra elusive and could juke Mohamoud Diabate with a jumping pirouette just wasn’t there, as his motion was pretty much just linear in the games after.

UK and USF started keying on taking away Richardson’s mobility on play action bootlegs, which in the base offense leaves little more for the signal caller to do on the ground other than designed quarterback runs. If he can’t make magic happen on those boots like he did in Week 1, then they need to figure out a different way to take advantage of his running ability. Even if he’s dinged up, he’s just not a good enough passer right now not to run him some.

UF ran much more option, or at least run plays that looked like they could be zone reads, against Utah than in the time since. Richardson is more comfortable doing those plays than he is running the new offense because he did them for years under the old staff. He also got some easy carries because the defense sold out on the fake handoffs. And he got some easy throws on RPOs where, again, the defense bit hard on the run.

AR spoke this week about how defenses are playing him. “Especially on our play-action fakes, they’re not even going for the run anymore,” he said. “They’re just waiting for me to roll out and use my legs. So that’s opened up other things for our running backs, and they can hit different holes and zones.”

Well, you can get the same thing with read option, and you can punish the focus on Richardson’s rushing with the pass on RPOs in a way you can’t when he’s running for his life on naked bootlegs. We know these things are in the playbook because we saw them in Week 1. Bring them back.

Get AR, WRs on the same page

The pick-six against Kentucky is the most notorious example, but Richardson and his targets haven’t always been on the same page. That interception came from him and Nay’Quan Wright reading the defense differently — Wright saw the defender sitting on the out and ran a go route, while Richardson thought the DB was hanging back and threw the out — but it’s not just that.

On Richardson’s end zone pick late against USF, Justin Shorter is running to the corner for a fade but Richardson threw back shoulder. Earlier in the game, there was an incompletion from Shorter running an out but Richardson throwing a curl.

Napier emphasized the importance of communication ahead of the loud environment coming up in Neyland, and Richardson said he was going to watch film together with receivers this week to work on this very issue. It had better work.

Run some tempo

Richardson appears to be having problems with getting too far in his own head and overthinking things. The way he processed and played against LSU last year and Utah this year shows that he is a smart quarterback. However, smart people can get themselves into trouble by using their minds too much.

One way to deal with that issue is to not give him enough time to overthink by employing some tempo.

UF sped things up some in that 2021 game against LSU to great effect with Richardson. He can thrive with it, so why not try it?

Of course, they need to be smart with it. They should follow the Gus Malzahn template of not going quickly until after at least getting a first down. The Gator defense doesn’t have the depth, especially on the line, to deal with an offense that goes 3-and-out in less than three minutes and takes only 17 seconds off the game clock. But getting Richardson into a groove might be easier with some tempo.

Get more stops

The defense could help out the offense by giving it more chances with the ball. It’s not a panacea, as the Gators had 12 real possessions (not killing clock at the end of a half) against Kentucky and still managed just 14 offensive points.

But they only had eight real possessions each against Utah and USF, and there could be long expanses between them as the other team moved up and down the field. It didn’t matter with AR’s confidence intact against Utah, but going back to the prior section, Richardson had a lot of time to ruminate on his struggles while the Bulls possessed the ball for several game minutes at a time.

UF lost an offensive possession versus USF due to Jalen Kimber’s pick-six — and gained one due to Richardson’s against Kentucky — but nothing bad would come from giving the struggling offense more opportunities to build some momentum.

Richardson acknowledged in his press availability this week that he can’t try to be Superman out there because of the lack of depth behind him, and Napier has said things to similar effect. However the team wouldn’t need Superman behind center with a defense more the effectiveness of the Kentucky game than of the Utah and USF games.

Simply put, Patrick Toney needs to find a way to get the opposing offense back to the sideline sooner. Easier said than done, but it’s gotta be done.

David Wunderlich
David Wunderlich is a born-and-raised Gator and a proud Florida alum. He has been writing about Florida and SEC football since 2006. He currently lives in Naples Italy, at least until the Navy stations his wife elsewhere. You can follow him on Twitter @Year2