Whitley: Jones, Gators defense are owed conditional apologies

David Whitley
The Gainesville Sun
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On behalf of me and thousands of Gator fans, I would like to say something to Emory Jones, Todd Grantham and Florida’s defense.

Mea culpa.

Lo lamentamos.

We’re sorry.

Pick any language, our message should be the same. We miscalculated how y’all would perform against Alabama.

When the Crimson Tide jumped to a 21-3 lead, we figured this edition of the Florida Gators was headed to the Union Trans Mortgage Gasparilla Bowl, assuming Union Trans Mortgage would even have you.

You proved us wrong — to an extent.

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That’s why this isn’t a full-throated, on-bended-knee, please-forgive-us apology. There’s still some convincing to do, starting with tonight's game with Tennessee.

Y’all seem to know this. Nick Saban had barely left town after the 31-29 thriller when Kaiir Elam tweeted, “Losing is NOT acceptable, especially in the Swamp!”

He later elaborated, “Even though we were projected to get mopped or whatever, but I feel like, I’m just telling the guys, like ‘Listen, like what we did last week is over with, like, we have to play a lot better.’”

The thing is, you showed us you can play a lot better. We had reason to doubt after the first two games. And nothing in the first 15 minutes against Alabama looked different.

It seemed the defensive coordinator forgot to include “tackle the receiver” in his game plan. After the Crimson Tide scored on their first three possessions, “Fire Grantham” started trending on social media.

It was 2020 all over again, then what do you know? Alabama’s next six possessions produced one touchdown, one field goal and four punts.

There are still issues, especially in the secondary. But you have to give it to any defense that holds Alabama to fewer than 100 yards rushing. Only two other teams managed that since 2014.

The competition is what made Jones’s day such a shock. The most hopeful/naive fan could excuse his first start against FAU as opening-night jitters. Jones didn’t flop, but he was late on throws, misread defenses and did not look like a quarterback who’d been groomed for three-plus years.

The most hopeful/naive fan could not excuse the USF game. Jones had two more bad interceptions against one of the worst teams in America. I wrote that if Florida was to have a prayer against the best team in America, it needed to start Anthony Richardson.

Mr. Excitement was just as likely to make the same mental mistakes as Jones, but at least Richardson would give the Gators a puncher’s chance. A bad hamstring eliminated that possibility, not that Dan Mullen seemed all that receptive to it in the first place.

He retained a lot more faith in Jones than the rest of us. We sure looked like the smart set when Jones threw an interception on UF’s second drive. At least that one was due to an errant throw, not a bad read.

Still, the boos came down. Thirty minutes later, the noise had morphed into 100-decibel exultation. Maybe it was not having to look over his shoulder at Richardson, but Jones found his groove.

What was the difference?

“I’d say preparation,” he said. “That’s what I learned from the first two games, that I had to do more preparation-wise. And I feel like I did for that game.”

I’m not sure what that means, because you’d assume he totally immersed himself in preparing for his starting debut and then trying to redeem himself in the encore.

Jones had plenty of help from his offensive line, running backs and Mullen’s schemes against Alabama. But none of that would have mattered if Jones had been the same QB we saw against USF.

Cool hand Emory

The most impressive thing was his cool. With the Gators pinned on their 1-yard line and facing a 3rd-and-10, Jones hit Nay’Quan Wright for an 18-yard gain.

In that drive and the next, Jones completed all three third-down passing attempts and a fourth-down throw. He also ran for 28 yards, as Mullen’s option plays discombobulated Alabama’s defense.

“I wouldn’t just say it was me, but as a team we learned just how much fight we have, and we got a lot of confidence from that game,” Jones said. “So, we’re just going to try to move on from that loss and move forward to the next game.”

Because it’s the media and fans’ job to give Mullen unsolicited advice, I wouldn’t even play Richardson against the Volunteers unless Jones gets injured. Hamstring injuries are notoriously fickle, and you want Richardson 110% healed for next week’s trip to Kentucky.

That would also give Jones another full game against an SEC opponent. He and the defense surprised a lot of us against the conference kingpin.

Mea culpa, lo lamentamos, our bad for being convinced they couldn’t play that way.

But if they really want to make us look like fools, they have to start playing that way every week.

— David Whitley is The Gainesville Sun's sports columnist. Contact him at dwhitley@gannett.com. And follow him on Twitter: @DavidEWhitley

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