Why Florida’s ‘Cam Newton-ish’ QB has the Utes’ full attention
Anthony Richardson doesn’t have a large body of work, but according to Utah coach Kyle Whittingham he’s a player the Utes will need to contain.
GAINESVILLE, Florida — This much is certain — first-year Florida football coach Billy Napier isn’t gently easing his way into this high-profile, pressure-packed position.
Napier will not only be making his debut as the Gators coach Saturday (5 p.m., MDT, ESPN) when Florida hosts No. 7 Utah in the season opener at The Swamp, he’ll also be facing a top-10 team that is the reigning Pac-12 champions and a program that many have projected as a College Football Playoff contender.
Utes on the air
No. 7 Utah (0-0)
at Florida (0-0)
Saturday, 5 p.m. MDT
Radio: ESPN 700
By comparison to other recent Florida coaches, in 2011, Will Muschamp debuted against Florida Atlantic. In 2015, Jim McElwain debuted against New Mexico State. In 2018, Dan Mullen debuted against Charleston Southern.
Having replaced Mullen, who was fired as the Gators posted a 6-7 campaign in 2021, Napier knows that there’s a sense of urgency. He knows he’s tasked with restoring Gator football glory.
Saturday, there’s an opportunity. And there’s a streak on the line.
Utah is a slight favorite in this game, which means Florida will be an underdog in its home-opener for the first time since 1978. The Gators have won 31 consecutive home openers.
What better way to be baptized as Florida’s coach than to upset a highly ranked opponent at home?
During his four seasons at Louisiana before taking over in Gainesville, Napier compiled a 40-12 record. Mullen went 34-15 in four seasons with the Gators.
Napier trusts in his team’s preparation for this game.
“Football in particular, you work the entire year and you only get so many opportunities to compete. I think I’ve learned over time that the important part is how do you get to a place where you are well prepared and you have confidence as a competitor,” he said. “We’ve got to continue to learn, we’ve got to continue to refine our process to get the team ready. Everything we do can improve, regardless of the outcome.”
For months, Napier has expressed his admiration for Utah’s program, and what coach Kyle Whittingham has built in Salt Lake City.
“I think they have a fantastic system on offense. They’re balanced. Obviously, the running backs are returning,” Napier said this week about the Utes. “This is a well-designed running attack, in my opinion. I admire the brand of football that they play, I think, on a number of different surfaces.”
When Napier was hired, he brought his three coordinators with him from Louisiana.
But now they will be coaching in the uber competitive and intense Southeastern Conference.
One of the challenges for Utah’s staff has been trying to figure out what Florida’s style will be under Napier, and how the personnel will be utilized.
“Generally speaking, you’re going to see a lot of the same schematics from the place they came from,” Whittingham said. “Obviously, you’ve got to tailor them to your new personnel and play to your strengths.
“All three coordinators came to Gainesville. We’re putting a lot of stock in what they did at Louisiana Lafayette last year; a lot of the same concepts showing up. In any opener, there are so many unknowns — you have to be ready for everything. You have to be able to have in-game adjustments early on. You can’t wait until halftime.”
One of the focal points of Utah’s preparation has been Florida’s dual-threat quarterback Anthony Richardson.
“Their quarterback is outstanding. I know there’s not a lot of big body of work but some people are projecting him as a top 10 (NFL) pick,” Whittingham said. “So obviously he has a ton of ability. He’s a big kid — 6-4, 240 pounds. And he’s fast. He’s going to be a handful for us.”
While Richardson has a lot of speed and athleticism — Whittingham compared him to former Auburn star Cam Newton — he lacks experience.
Over two seasons in the program, he’s completed only 66 passes. Richardson has completed 59% of his attempts for 529 yards, six touchdowns and five interceptions, while rushing for 401 yards and three TDs.
But Whittingham knows that Richardson must be contained.
“You’ve got to account for the QB run game essentially every single down. The guy reportedly has 4.3 speed,” he said. “At that size, that’s incredible. That’s Cam Newton-ish with his physical stature and his ability to run.
“That’s something that coach (Morgan) Scalley and his staff are well-aware of. That’s got to be taken into account in everything we do … A dual threat is a dual threat. (Richardson) is a dual threat in every sense of the word. You have to be able to defend everything.”
Last season, Richardson split time with Emory Jones, who has since transferred to Arizona State. Now, the job belongs to Richardson.
“I’m very pleased with Anthony’s attitude and approach,” Napier said this week. “I think he’s really worked hard to have a better comprehension of the system, a lot of reps.”
One of Richardson’s receivers, Arizona State transfer Ricky Pearsall, suffered a foot injury during fall camp and may be sidelined for Saturday’s game. That’s a big blow for the Gators.
Meanwhile, Utah has faced Napier relatively recently, with a bad result. Napier was Arizona State’s offensive coordinator in 2017 when the Sun Devils crushed the Utes 30-10.
“He’s an outstanding young coach. He has a lot of energy. They beat us handily that year. They took it to us,” Whittingham said. “Schematically on offense, he’s very innovative. He does a good job of that.”
As Utah invades The Swamp, Napier is counting on Gator fans to provide them with support.
“We all understand Gainesville transforms on game day, and I’m certainly excited about experiencing that for the first time being on this side,” he said. “So be there early, know that you’re a part of the team and that you can contribute and help our team in terms of the game.”