Florida football: QB Anthony Richardson gets shot at redemption in second start vs. rival Georgia

Kevin Brockway
Gator Sports

Florida Gators quarterback Anthony Richardson admitted there were jitters before his first career start last year against rival Georgia.

It showed on the field. Facing a Georgia defense that would go on to have five players taken in the first round of the NFL Draft, Richardson turned the ball over three times in the final 2:30 of the first half – losing a fumble and throwing two interceptions. The three miscues led to three Georgia touchdowns, turning a close 3-0 game into a 24-0 deficit at halftime that was too difficult for the Gators to overcome in an eventual 34-7 loss.

“I didn't really showcase what I wanted to showcase,” Richardson said. “It kind of created a narrative that I wasn't ready.”

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Richardson’s chance at redemption will come Saturday when the Gators (4-3, 1-3 SEC) face No. 1 Georgia (7-0, 4-0 SEC) in Jacksonville (3:30 p.m. CBS). If Richardson could somehow lead Florida to its first win against an AP No. 1 team since beating Alabama in the 2008 SEC title game, it would change the narrative for both him and UF’s first season under head coach Billy Napier.

As of Thursday, the Gators were 22.5-point underdogs.

“It would mean a lot, just to even win,” Richardson said. “Every win is a big win for us. This one is an SEC game, so an SEC win would be great for us.”

Getting comfortable as a starter

The hype surrounding Richardson, a hometown Gainesville standout from Eastside High, reached epic heights when he led the Gators to a 29-26 upset of then No. 8 Utah in UF’s season opener on Sept. 3. He passed for 168 yards and rushed for 106 yards and 3 TDs to earn SEC offensive player of the week honors.

Since then, there have been growing pains executing Napier’s offense. The following week, Richardson went 14 of 35 with 2 interceptions in a 26-16 home  loss to No. 20 Kentucky, including a critical pick six in the second half that was the turning point in the game.

Richardson has made progress in his last four starts– which began with a career-high 453-yard passing performance at Tennessee. Over Richardson’s first three games, his passer rating stood at 89.0 with 0 TDs and 4 interceptions and an average of 141 yards per game. In Richardson’s last four starts, he’s posted a passer rating of 161.0, averaging 236 yards passing with 6 TDs to 3 interceptions.

“He continues to grow,” Napier said. “There is no doubt the comfort level with all the things that contribute to quarterback play, not only our system, but what the other side of the ball is doing, being able to speak that language. Just a ton of growth relative to where he's at and the level he's processing.”

Richardson has made his share of home-run plays – including touchdown passes of 75 and 51 yards to receiver Justin Shorter and an 81-yard TD run against LSU. His athletic gifts at 6-foot-5, 232 pounds make him an intriguing NFL prospect, which is why NFL scouts from multiple teams have attended games at The Swamp in droves this season.

But Richardson’s accuracy remains an issue. His completion percentage of 56.5 remains worst among SEC starting quarterbacks. Richardson said he spent the bye week watching extra film and continuing to get in sync with UF’s receivers.

“Just chemistry and just understanding what we both want,” Richardson said. “Those guys want the ball. I want to get them the ball.”

Handling emotions

Teammates say Richardson has grown into the role as a leader on offense. He will make his ninth career start -- and eighth this season -- against the Bulldogs on Saturday.

“He’s been a guy that’s been vocal, trying to get us right,” Florida right tackle Austin Barber said. “I feel like him growing from week to week is going to keep us going and I feel like he’s at a point where he can lead this team and get to a victory.”

Richardson said he still gets jitters before games but knows better how to manage them.

“You always want to perform to the best of your ability, so I feel like everybody gets jitters,” Richardson said. “But I try to limit those as much as possible, just stay out of my own head.”

Playing at a high level in front of 100,000 fans at Neyland Stadium against Tennessee showed Richardson could deal with a hostile SEC atmosphere. The crowd split will be 50-50 in the stands for the Georgia game.

“That one prepared me for this one,” Richardson said.

Georgia’s defense remains dominant even after losing the five first-round draft picks from its 2021 national title team. The Bulldogs rank second nationally in scoring defense (9.1 ppg), fourth in total defense (247.0 ypg allowed) and fourth in passing defense (163.7 ypg allowed).

“Not much has changed,” Richardson said. “Georgia, they're great at recruiting. They know how to get guys and put them in the right spots. Their coach trusts them to be in the right spot, so just looking at the film, there's not much of a difference.”

It will be up to Richardson and the rest of the Florida offense to find ways to move the chains against Georgia’s stingy defense. For as much as Richardson struggled in that first career start, he said it helped shape him into the player he is today.

“I made improvements as a player, as a person, so I'm thankful that I even got the opportunity to start in that game,” Richardson said. “It was fun, just being on that field with my teammates. It was definitely a huge blessing. I was thankful for that.”