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Are Gators’ QB Anthony Richardson’s Rushing Limitations Inhibiting Success?

Anthony Richardson is a potential starring factor in a high-potential Florida ground game. He should be used as such.

Photo: Anthony Richardson; Credit: Alex Shepherd 

The Florida Gators' return to reality after a euphoric opening-weekend victory grew increasingly concerning on Saturday as the Gators failed to separate from the lesser in-state opponent USF Bulls.

Plagued by a poor rushing defense and another dud performance by quarterback Anthony Richardson, question marks loom large surrounding the program heading into week four of Billy Napier's first campaign as head coach.

The largest storyline: What is wrong with Richardson? The answer is multifaceted, but one potential solution to the signal caller's play outweighs the rest.

A noticeable aspect missing from the Gators' quarterback resume in the past two contests is his usage as a runner. That facet of his game is a significant piece of what makes him a unique talent — given the uncanny athleticism and physical attributes he carries.

According to Napier, the reserved approach his quarterback has adopted in the past two weeks is by design for more than one reason.

"I think our situation at quarterback has something to do with that, if that makes sense," Napier said in reference to the depth the position group presents at the moment with Jalen Kitna, Kyle Engel and Max Brown behind Richardson.

When put into that perspective, the decision to limit him may not be the wrong one, considering the gap between Florida's top signal caller and the options who sit behind him on the depth chart. However, it's not the right one where team success is concerned, either.

Instead of allowing Richardson to embrace that role as a rusher, as he said he would early at SEC Media Days in July, Napier is inhibiting the immense value of his quarterback, the offense and the team as a whole in the past two weeks after an explosive outing to begin the year.

Napier highlighted the few plays he did succeed when electing to use his legs when the situations warranted against USF. Although the lack of designed runs is an evident shortcoming in the offensive game plan, Napier said that it is by design to combat the defensive strategy of containing the more-than-capable rusher.

"I think each game and each week is a little bit different relative to the concepts that are called, how the team's defending you. I think teams are very aware that this guy can beat them with his feet. I think you maybe get different structure as a result of that.

"I think we do our best to use his skill set, and I think we'll continue to grow in that area."

Growth is desperately needed, indeed, as the approach severely limits Richardson from operating at his full capacity — although he said he doesn't think it forces him to play any differently. Consequently, that hurts the overall team success.

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Focusing on playing as a pocket passer while simultaneously playing with his hands (or, in this case, legs) tied, Richardson isn’t willing to bail himself out of the challenging situations he faces with the elite-level athleticism he's shown as recent as week one.

That’s evident in his 13 rushes for just 28 yards since.

Instead of being in designed rushing situations or instinctually bailing from the pocket to turn busted plays destined for negative yardage into a positive gain, Richardson sits in the face of pressure before making the erroneous reads out of panic or attempting to escape when it’s too late to make his magic happen. It's led to his 52.3% completion and zero-to-four touchdown-to-interception ratio in his first three starts this season.

He said on Monday that the staff harps on him to play carefully each week. Don't "take the big hit" or try to be Superman, he's been told. 

One might wonder if these suggestions stem from Richardson's own hurts, as he admitted that he has been affected — physically and mentally in a limited fashion, he shared — by a hit to the same knee he had surgery on late last year vs. Kentucky in Week 2 and when his ankle was stepped on against USF in Week 3. He claimed both hits caused soreness that he's been able to play through.

However, the mix of his own physical limitations and the coaching staff's approach have held him back from turning the potential he flashed at points last season and against the Utes to begin in 2022 into a constant.

When asked what's changed from his season-opening performance — a game in which he earned widespread acclaim for his efforts on the ground (11 rushes, 106 yards and three touchdowns) despite receiving similar caution throughout the week — Richardson took a quick self-reflection before answering simply: "I don't even know."

"Honestly, that's a great question. I guess I started holding myself back from running, and that's a part of the offense that helps us move the ball. So I guess I've just got to pick that up and bring that back."

No matter the room for improvement needed from both sides in this early-season saga, the Gators' head coach believes a light bulb starting to flicker in Richardson's mind. Napier is confident in his QB1 to regain his widths about him and grow as the year rolls along.

"We ask our quarterback to do a lot, and he's managing it well, and he's going to continue to get better."

Putting him in the best situations to succeed can expedite that process.

Moving forward, as the unit grows healthier with the intended backup prior to the year Jack Miller III inching closer to a return from the thumb injury that required surgery this fall, the days of Richardson's hesitating to run should cease to exist.

For the Gators' offense to tick at its full capacity, rekindling the spark that comes with Richardson's dual-threat ability, it will have to. 

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