Help Wanted: Playmakers Needed in Gainesville
Only three weeks into the season, the Florida Gators have already had plenty of ups and downs, especially on offense. Beginning with an impressive win over what is expected to be a stout Utah defense this year, the Gators then hosted Kentucky where the fireworks fizzled out. Last Saturday night, in what many fans expected to be a palette cleanser, Florida scraped by USF, a team who gave up over 550 yards of offense week one - 300+ on the ground - for a 3 point victory. Much has been made of the up and down play of Florida's signal caller, Anthony Richardson, but there have been a few other factors that have caused the offense to sputter. Some things are easier to control, like tightening up the RB rotation to ensure your best ball carriers are being given the most opportunity. On the other hand, things like Florida's passing game have some less obvious answers.
Looking first at the run game, the distribution of carries has been even across the board with all four of Florida's top rushers having 23-25 carries. The problem with this though, is that Florida's starting RB in each of the first three games, Nay'Quan Wright, might be their least efficient back. With the small sample size so far this year, it could be chalked up to the transition. However, even when looking back at last year, Wright was again Florida's least efficient back (-0.07 EPA/Carry, 34% success rate, 10% explosive rate). On the flipside, Etienne and Johnson are already putting up better numbers than Florida legend, Dameon Pierce (0.22 EPA/Carry, 53% success rate, 20% explosive rate in 2021).
To the left, we have every rush attempt for Florida and the EPA value gained on each of those attempts. Here, the explosiveness of Anthony Richardson and Montrell Johnson stands out. Additionally, when you take into consideration Johnson's numbers are impacted by his first fumble in 187 career carries, his production becomes even more impressive and, without the fumble, would put him at the top of the RB room (15.4 totalEPA, 0.64 EPA/Carry). To those who protest you can't remove something that happened. You're certainly right, but we also can't forget Etienne's fumble late against Utah, which he was lucky enough to be able to regain possession. As the season plays out, we'll hope to see Johnson and Etienne become the primary backs as Florida will need to rely on its run game while Anthony Richardson and the passing attack work out the kinks (more on that later). With Nay'Quan Wright remaining the clear RB1 on the depth chart Wednesday night heading to Knoxville, he'll have another chance to keep his spot with Johnson and Etienne pushing hard for more carries.
Turning to the pass game, things get much less clear. After an impressive performance in the opener, Richardson has struggled in the last two outings. Completing just 45% of his pass attempts, his inaccuracy has hampered the receivers' impact. Specifically looking at Justin Shorter, he's only caught 37.5% of his targets, but per PFF, has not been credited with any drops. If Richardson can find a groove, Shorter may be poised for a breakout as he sported a respectable 0.75 EPA/Target and 71% catch rate in 2021 on 56 targets. More obviously though, I think there's one receiver who could use more attention in the game plan.
Only third in targets, Ricky Pearsall has pretty clearly been Florida's WR1, after being the WR1 for his previous Sun Devils squad. Considering Florida is often in 12 personnel with just two receivers, it could be worth trying Pearsall along with Shorter on the outside in those sets. Pearsall played primarily in the slot in his first two seasons, but played almost 60% of his snaps out wide in 2021 (per PFF) and proved he could do it successfully, putting up 0.55 EPA/Target. Finally, the running backs could be used more to help supplement a struggling passing game. Through three games, Florida's RBs have seen just FOUR targets. Right now, Florida's running backs are the most reliable weapons on the offense and involving them in the pass game could accomplish two things by getting its best athletes out in space and allowing Anthony Richardson some easy throws to build confidence.
With a young signal caller leading a relatively young offense through the transition to a totally brand new scheme, there were sure to be some growing pains which are sure to continue throughout the season. As the staff and team works through those frustrating moments with ill-timed interceptions, drops and rotations the Gators are sure to lose another game or two they maybe shouldn't. But the key as the season wears on is to see growth heading into the offseason where most of the offensive depth chart should be returning alongside an even younger defense heading into Billy Napier's second year.