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Mullen to Evaluate Gators QB Situation, Faces Biggest Decision as HC

Will the Florida Gators start Anthony Richardson or Emory Jones at quarterback moving forward?

Dan Mullen faces the biggest decision of his head coaching career at the University of Florida: To start Anthony Richardson at quarterback or potentially lose his grip on the program.

It seemed as though Mullen made that decision in the No. 20 Gators' (4-3) 49-42 loss to the unranked LSU Tigers (4-3) on Saturday, pulling starter Emory Jones out of the game in the third quarter after throwing his second interception (a pick-six) of the afternoon. 

Richardson stepped in as Florida trailed 28-13 and turned the second-half into a shootout. After throwing one pass - which was intercepted - across limited first-half snaps, Richardson completed 10-of-18 passes for 167 yards, three touchdowns throwing an additional pick on UF's final offensive play of the game. Richardson added a team-leading 37 yards rushing and a score on the ground.

As a result, Florida scored on four consecutive drives after Richardson's entry, tying the game at 35 and again at 42 within the final 20 minutes of the game. Richardson's performance gave the Gators' offense life and nearly led to a desperately-needed comeback victory for UF.

Richardson suffered a hand injury which put Jones back on the field on 3rd and 12 in fourth quarter. Jones made a fantastic pass to receiver Justin Shorter for a first down, but three plays later, Richardson re-entered the game. At that point, it seemed like Richardson's job to lose.

You'd figure, considering these factors, the decision would be an easy one for Mullen to make if it hadn't already been made. However, when he had a chance to speak on the subject, it didn't seem like Mullen was even close to a conclusion.

"We're going to look at that, obviously, going into a bye week. We're going to evaluate a lot of things," Mullen said when asked about his quarterback situation, as well as the Gators' defensive showing. 

"I thought you saw some good things from both quarterbacks today, saw some mistakes from both quarterbacks today," he continued. "So we'll evaluate that, of how that's going to play out moving forward. I can jump up and down on the table on some really good things they did and jump up and down on the table on some terrible mistakes that they both, that we made, so we'll evaluate that part of it."

Sure, Richardson's interceptions were, in Mullen's words, terrible decisions. On the final throw, Richardson stepped backwards with three LSU defenders applying pressure, rolled slightly to the right and flicked a pass off of his backfoot down the left side of the field, significantly underthrowing receiver Rick Wells. Linebacker Damone Clark undercut Wells and secured a game-ending turnover.

But, so were Jones'. On his second pick, Jones slid left under pressure and made an awkwardly-angled pass to the middle of the field, which was undercut by cornerback Dwight McGlothern and returned to the house. 

And with Jones at quarterback, UF scored on just two of its seven drives, quickly falling behind an inferior Tigers team.

Even though he is continuing to develop, Richardson stepped into a hostile environment and provided the team something Jones could not: A chance to win the game, as improbable as a victory seemed when he took the field in the third quarter.

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As Mullen said postgame - the reason he claims Richardson remained in the game after his first touchdown - Richardson "got hot." And as a result, "we had some momentum offensively," Mullen admitted.

Yet, Mullen - as he's done all season when Richardson has drawn attention - was hesitant to offer too much praise for the redshirt freshman quarterback's play and suggested that this game could serve as a confidence builder. 

A reporter considered Richardson a potentially transcendent player in his back and forth with Mullen, to which the head coach replied with a sarcastic tone to begin his answer: “We’ll see. I love everybody labeling people. He’s a young quarterback that’s learning and developing. That’s a good label for him.”

Not too ringing of an endorsement for the quarterback that nearly saved the day from a massive upset.

Mullen and the Gators will have a week off before facing No. 1 Georgia in Jacksonville on Oct. 30, giving the head coach and his staff plenty of time to evaluate the quarterback position and determine a starter.

But the answer is already pretty clear: The starter should be Richardson.

If it isn't, who is to say things won't get worse for Mullen and the Gators' offense? After losing to an underdog twice this season with subpar offensive play, how could anyone rule out possible upsets to South Carolina or Missouri on the road?

Or, in the worst-case scenario, what if Richardson were to look elsewhere for a chance to prove himself in a guaranteed starting role? Asked if that could ever be a possibility after the game, Richardson was not completely committal, mentioning that he is a Gator "right now" but not offering much more.

"I can’t really speak on that," Richardson responded. "Time is the only thing that can tell."

Mullen can't afford another upset loss this season. It would drastically tarnish his reputation at UF after a disappointing first seven games in 2021 and as the Gators have lost six of their last eight matchups with Power 5 programs.

Losing Richardson to another school due to a lack of playing time, though, could be the final nail in Mullen's coffin as the Gators' head coach. These are the types of decisions that either make SEC coaches, or break them.

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