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Monday, October 02, 2023

Jones rises from ashes, defensive dumpster fire could prove suffocating

Redshirt junior’s historic day overshadowed by defensive disaster

Florida quarterback Emory Jones drops back to pass against Samford during the Gators’ 70-52 win on Nov. 13.
Florida quarterback Emory Jones drops back to pass against Samford during the Gators’ 70-52 win on Nov. 13.

Florida quarterback Emory Jones worked his way to the locker room for halftime at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium Saturday, his team trudging toward the south end zone. The redshirt junior completed 13 of 16 passes for 226 yards and scored three total touchdowns through two quarters.

It’s probably uncommon for a quarterback with such a statline to hear boos filter from his home crowd.

Jones rose from the ashes of his early struggles and Florida’s defense to author a historic afternoon for the Gators Saturday during a 72-50 victory over Samford. The raging defensive fire, however, might leave too much damage in its wake.

Before the Bulldogs (no, not those Bulldogs) came to town this weekend, Jones’ first season under center crumbled slightly under the fire of pressure. The mercurial starter had thrown 10 interceptions in his nine starts and multiple picks in three games, and he had thrown almost as many picks as touchdowns through the end of October. After his second interception was returned for a touchdown against Louisiana State on Oct. 16, he rode the bench in favor of redshirt freshman Anthony Richardson.

Jones’ early struggles did not come without their criticisms, as fans clamored for Richardson to take his job all season. The fourth-year quarterback’s teammates praised his reaction to the outside noise, however.

“He’s fighting back, he’s grown a lot,” tight end Kemore Gamble said after the game. “You hear all the noise outside, fans and stuff, people bashing you, messages in your DMs. I know it’s hard because I get it sometimes and I think he’s handled it well.”

Like a phoenix emerging from the remains of a blaze, that growth went on full display against Samford with a record-breaking statline. Jones threw six touchdowns and added another with his legs, breaking Heisman winner Tim Tebow’s program record for most yards of total offense with 550, 464 through the air and 86 on the ground. He completed 28 of his 34 passes, didn’t turn the ball over and completed six passes longer than 20 yards.

So how was Jones’ emergence not the primary takeaway of the game?

A phoenix may rise from ashes, but no bird can fly if it’s locked within a burning house, and the Florida defense could prevent any quarterback’s growth from truly mattering.

Even before Saturday’s shootout, Samford’s offense impressed on paper despite its lowly Southern Conference competition. The Bulldogs averaged more than 36 points per game before Saturday and scored 40 or more points five times.

Those numbers don’t explain why the Football Championship Subdivision members hung 42 points on Florida in two quarters.

The Bulldogs scored 52 points Saturday, more than they had in any game this season in a schedule including foes like Western Carolina, Mercer, Wofford and the Virginia Military Institute.

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The more concerning part of the offensive onslaught from the FCS foe is how typical it appears for Florida. The Gators surrendered an average of 43.75 points and 449.25 yards over their last four games with an FCS opponent and teams ranked 71st, 11th and 100th in the country in scoring offense

The last four quarterbacks to play against Florida, made up of two backups, a third-string FCS transfer and an FCS quarterback, combined for 869 yards, nine touchdowns, three interceptions and 7.3 yards per attempt. 

In those same four games, Florida surrendered 912 rushing yards and nine touchdowns on the ground. The three Power 5 opponents currently slot 114th, 26th and 99th in the nation in rushing offense.

The Gators parted ways with defensive coordinator Todd Grantham last weekend, but his absence fanned no flames on the back end through one week.

Time will tell if Jones emerged from his personal fiery trials against Samford, but his rebirth could be swallowed by a larger inferno if left unchecked.

Contact Ryan Haley at Follow him on Twitter @ryan_dhaley.

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Ryan Haley

Ryan Haley, a UF journalism senior with a sports & media specialization from Jacksonville, Florida, is Summer 2022's Engagement Managing Editor. He grew up playing a bunch of different sports before settling on golf, following Rory McIlroy and all Philadelphia sports teams. He also loves all things fiction, reading, watching shows and movies and talking about whatever current story or character is in his head.

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