GAINESVILLE, Fla. — More so than in the practices open to the media earlier this spring, it was plain to see freshman quarterback Emory Jones’ significant upside Saturday during Florida’s Orange & Blue game.
The stats didn’t even really capture it, as Jones completed 3 of 7 passes for 93 yards, 2 touchdowns and 1 interception with 18 rushing yards. Rather, it was the glimpses of arm strength and natural speed that one could extrapolate into a vision for the kind of player he might one day be for the Gators.
But as has been clear since coach Dan Mullen’s pre-spring speaking tour, the coaches are not going to rush that process.
Mullen talked then about how a coaching staff must be careful with what it exposes a young quarterback to, and he offered further telling comments on the matter while talking to the SEC Network crew during the live broadcast Saturday.
“They’ve got to understand the offense. You’ve got to get them some completions while they’re out there, and you’ve got to manage situations you put them in. Feleipe [Franks], it seems at times, probably had to play before he was ready to go last year,” Mullen said. “… When you get out there sometimes before you’re ready, you force things, you don’t see things the right way all the time, and there’s a lot of things you’ve got to do to get him confident in what’s going on.”
In hindsight, the conclusion could be drawn that all of the experience Franks received as a redshirt freshman last fall was not necessarily positive or constructive. His progress plateaued and the same struggles surfaced each Saturday.
Only Franks knows what lasting impact that had on his confidence and his own long-term potential — perhaps none — but there seems little doubt that Mullen and his staff will not take any chances with Jones.
That said, it’s easy to envision them picking opportune spots to ease the highly touted dual-threat prospect into his first college football season.
And there’s ample precedent for that very scenario in Mullen’s offenses.
Of course, Mullen was the offensive coordinator at Florida when Tim Tebow was a freshman in 2006. Chris Leak was the starting quarterback for that national championship team, passing for 2,942 yards, but Tebow got 89 rushes for 469 yards and 8 touchdowns and attempted 33 passes (with 5 TDs) while giving the offense a different look/spark at times.
Chris Relf was a still-raw redshirt sophomore on Mullen’s first Mississippi State team in 2009 who played behind starting QB Tyson Lee. He got at least 6 carries in more than half of the games while totaling 500 rushing yards.
Dak Prescott didn’t have a big role as a freshman at Mississippi State in 2012, but he carried the ball 32 times for 118 yards and 4 touchdowns while also attempting 29 passes.
And just last season, Mullen got Mississippi State freshman Keytaon Thompson involved in spots behind starting quarterback Nick Fitzgerald. Thompson touched the ball in small doses in every game last fall before taking over for the final two games following an injury to Fitzgerald.
That track record indicates Florida fans will see Jones in those same small doses this fall, which could be exciting.
After all, that’s all he needed Saturday in the Orange & Blue game to make a strong impression. On his second series after replacing Franks late in the second quarter, Jones threw a missile in stride over the middle to R.J. Raymond, which Raymond deftly turned into a 58-yard touchdown for one of the highlights of the day.
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While Jones looked erratic as a passer at times this spring, at least in the periods open to reporters, he showed Saturday that he indeed can throw with the zip and precision necessary to succeed at this level, albeit perhaps not as consistently as needed yet.
The most telling sequence for Jones, though, came in the third quarter. He threw another sharp strike over the middle, this one to tight end Kemore Gamble, then rushed for an easy 15 yards around the left end on the next play and followed immediately with a 19-yard toss to Gamble for an open touchdown.
That was enough to remind everybody why he was rated a 4-star recruit and the No. 5 dual-threat quarterback in the Class of 2018 by the 247Sports composite.
And enough to show that he might just be able to impact the Gators as a freshman this fall, even if in a limited role.