If you watched the Florida Gators’ season-opening win against Utah, you noticed that quarterback Anthony Richardson looked unstoppable in the open field.

Richardson rushed for 106 yards on 11 carries. Without that yardage, the Gators probably don’t beat Utah.

In the two games since Florida’s win over Utah, Richardson has rushed for only 28 yards. One of those games was against South Florida — an opponent that Richardson should’ve shined against.

Richardson, however, was reluctant to run the ball. Instead, he tried to rely on his arm. He passed for just 112 yards with 0 touchdowns and two interceptions against South Florida (Richardson has zero passing touchdowns this season).

So why hasn’t Richardson been running the ball lately?

Well, it has a lot to do with Florida’s backup quarterback situation.

Jack Miller, the Gators’ primary backup to Richardson, is still out as he’s recovering from surgery on a fractured thumb.

That’s left Florida with walk-on sophomore Kyle Engel and redshirt freshman Jalen Kitna as Richardson’s backups.

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Florida Gators quarterback Anthony Richardson (15) scrambles with the ball during the second half against the South Florida Bulls at Steve Spurrier Field at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville, FL on Saturday, September 17, 2022. [Matt Pendleton/Gainesville Sun]
Ncaa Football Florida Gators Vs South Florida Bulls
Napier told reporters this week that Florida’s situation at quarterback has had an impact on Richardson’s usage.

“I think our situation at quarterback has something to do with it, if that makes sense,” said Napier about Richardson not running as much. “But I also believe the guy has made some plays with his legs. The guy made two third-down conversions in the game the other day, where it’s third-and-7 to 10, long, extra long. Then he goes through his progression and breaks the pocket and makes the play.”

“I think each game and each play is different relative to the concepts that are called, how the team is defending you,” added Napier. “I think teams are very aware that this guy can beat them with his feet. So I think you can maybe get a different structure as a result of that … I think we do our best to use his skill set and I think we’ll continue to grow in that.”

Napier didn’t explicitly say that he’s told Richardson to run the ball less.

Richardson, however, told reporters on Monday that Florida’s coaches have stressed to him to be careful and not take big hits.

“They tell me every week I have to be careful, [that] I can’t take big hits,” said Richardson. “I can’t be superman out there. I try not to be too physical. I try to get down. I started sliding this year. I definitely think about it. I don’t think it takes me out of my game. I think it helps me stay a little safer.”

It sounds like Florida’s lack of a reliable backup quarterback has completely altered how Richardson operates.

And the fact that Richardson is thinking about avoiding hits during a game — not that I blame him — means he’s not 100 percent focused on making the play no matter what.

In the past, a “no matter what” mindset from an opposing quarterback has burned the Tennessee Vols.

It certainly works to Tennessee’s advantage that Richardson is aware that Florida’s coaching staff doesn’t want him taking big hits. Regardless of what he says, that takes him out of his game a little bit, which is obviously a positive for the Vols.

If Richardson continues to be limited in what he can do with his legs — remember, he had knee surgery to repair a torn meniscus last December — then it’s going to make Tennessee’s job a lot easier on Saturday.

Richardson hasn’t shown that he can beat teams with his arm. He’s going to have to beat the Vols with his legs.

Now, could Napier and Richardson be engaging in some gamesmanship?

That’s certainly possible. It’s definitely a bit odd that Napier and Richardson are openly talking about keeping Richardson healthy by limiting what he can do with the ball.

However, I’m not sure this is gamesmanship. Richardson got a little banged up early this season and Napier immediately pulled the reigns in on him. The numbers suggest that he’s being straightforward with his comments.

I imagine Napier’s focus is more on trying to win games later this season with Richardson instead of simply doing whatever it takes to beat Tennessee.

From the Gators’ perspective, this game doesn’t mean a whole lot. Of course they want to win, but their season won’t be defined by this game because this is a “rebuilding year” for Florida.

Napier doesn’t want to lose Richardson and then lose games to teams like South Carolina or Missouri. It’s not the wrong approach.

Of course, with all this said, if it’s a close game in the fourth quarter and the Vols, while clinging to a slim lead, get Florida in a fourth-and-eight situation and they go for it, well Tennessee better be prepared for Richardson to take off with his legs.

Richardson may not run as much as he did against Utah, but he can still run the ball when it matters. And Tennessee better be ready for it — I don’t care what anyone’s said this week.

Featured image via Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports