Progress Needs to Travel to Kentucky

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — You never know what you’ll learn about your team or even yourself, as a player, when it’s time for the game. 

Florida quarterback Emory Jones said as much Monday, as he spoke about his second straight impressive outing in Saturday night’s win over Tennessee and looked ahead to the next challenge for the 10th-ranked Gators (3-1, 1-1), who face unbeaten Kentucky (4-0, 2-0) in their first Southeastern Conference road date of the season. 

“You find stuff out after the game,” Jones said. 

And during. 

Take UF’s last trip to Lexington, Ky. The year was 2019 and the Gators trailed by 11 late in the third quarter when senior quarterback Feleipe Franks suffered a grotesque ankle injury that every person on site or watching on television knew was season-ending. Enter Kyle Trask and the Florida quarterback position — productivity and expectations — hasn’t been the same since. 

Just like Trask got a battlefield promotion that night, Jones’ role and responsibility changed as well. He became the mobile, change-of-pace option for that UF team; a good Robin sidekick to Trask’s in-the-pocket Batman. Jones took the role and ran with it (literally), with some passes mixed in, all the while understanding that his time would come. 

Kyle Trask gets a celebratory lift from an offensive lineman after scoring a touchdown in UF’s comeback win at Kentucky in 2019. 

When that time finally arrived for the start of the 2021 there were growing pains, with more surely to come, but it’s clear that Jones — when you take his first two games and stack them against his last two — is figuring some stuff out along the way. 

In the first two games, wins over overmatched Florida Atlantic at home and South Florida on the road, Jones completed 31 of 49 passes for 264 yards, one touchdown and four interceptions, while rushing 23 times for 156 yards. In the last two games, a two-point loss to No. 1 Alabama and then against Tennessee, both at home, Jones was 39 of 55 for 404 yards, two touchdowns and one interception, to go with 34 carries for rushing 220 yards and a touchdown. He’s led 10 touchdown drives that have looked like this: 79, 75, 75, 99, 75, 66, 59, 78, 70 and 80 yards. 

“I saw a guy who looked more comfortable. Overall, it was like a pretty good performance by me, but there were a lot of things I could still do better and a couple of mistakes I still made,” Jones said of what he put on tape in UF’s 38-14 defeat of Tennessee. “I know what’s going through my head when I’m watching the film. I was just processing information, processing the defenses, and I was doing that pretty smooth. I made quick decisions. That’s me feeling more comfortable out there, from what I know about myself.” 

Now the learning continues, for all the Gators, against a Kentucky team that is looking for a signature victory and will have a sold-out Big Blue Nation crowd on hand Saturday night at Commonwealth Stadium. The Wildcats have a pair of low-major wins over Louisiana-Monroe and Tennessee-Chattanooga, but also a pair of SEC victories, winning at home against Missouri and, most recently, beating South Carolina 16-10 on the road over the weekend. 

Kentucky has played Florida tough in five the last seven contests. The Gators won four of those games by one possession (including a one-point win on the road, plus another overtime win at home). In 2018, of course, UF had its 31-game winning streak in the series snapped when UK came to town and won 27-16. In the last trip to Commonwealth, Trask came off the bench to rally his team to the final 19 points of the game and a 29-21 win that wasn’t secure until the final minute. 

The Gators should expect the Cats’ best shot. 

“You know it’s going to be tough competition going on the road,” senior defensive back Trey Dean III said.  

UK is averaging 443.8 yards of offense per game, a middling number that checks in eighth in the SEC. The Cats’ strength is on defense, a staple of Coach Mark Stoops, whose unit is giving up just 260.0 yards per game (2nd in the SEC and 9th nationally), including just 87.5 yards rushing per game (3rd SEC, 21st nationally). 

The latter stat should make things interesting, what with the Gators bringing the league’s best (and No. 3 nationally ranked) rushing attack to town (322.5 per game). The UF ground game could get a boost from the return of backup quarterback Anthony Richardson (275 yards, 25.0 per carry), who has been held of the last two games due to the hamstring injury suffered on his final play against USF. Repeat: “should.”

UF coach Dan Mullen said again Monday that Richardson was cleared medically to play against the Volunteers (as he did against Alabama), but the goal all along was to let the injury completely heal. 

“When you think you’re 100 percent [with a hamstring], wait one more week and then you’re good,” Mullen said. 

The Gators could also have standout junior cornerback Kaiir Elam back this week after he missed the UT game with a sore knee, which should help a defense that gave up a couple long touchdown passes (47 yards on a screen, then 75 on a blown deep-ball coverage). Ditto with offensive guard Stewart Reese (ankle), who was held out against the Vols. He should be back. They’ll wait and see on offensive tackle Jean Delance, whose leg and knee got banged around pretty good Saturday. 

Mullen praised the performances of backup linemen Josh Braun and Michael Tarquin, but a full-go offensive front might be needed to move that stout Kentucky defensive front seven. That could be something the Gators learn about in their first trip out of the state. 

One of many things. 

“I think you’re always learning in this league,” Mullen said. “It’s such a challenge from one week to the next. But what I need to see is us continue to take those steps of improving. I think that’s it. You want to be a great team? You’ve got to play great all the time — and I saw that. Certainly saw a decrease in mental errors this week from the week before, even though there’s still plenty of them to go around.”


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