Most quarterbacks that go 11-2 in their first season as a starter – and follow up that campaign by throwing for more yards in a single game against an FBS opponent than his school has seen in four years – would likely be surrounded by Heisman Trophy buzz.
As has been obvious for the last 18 months, Florida Gators redshirt junior Jeff Driskel is not most quarterbacks.
Instead of fans and critics looking at what Driskel has accomplished despite playing for two now-fired offensive coordinators in pro-style systems he was not originally recruited to run, the focus has been on his numerous failings.
In those two losses during his sophomore campaign, Driskel completed just 55 percent of his passes. He threw for just one touchdown, tossed four interceptions (including a pick-six in the opening moments of the 2013 Sugar Bowl against Louisville) and fumbled thrice (twice in the red zone, one of which began the Georgia game on a sour note).
Driskel started his 2013 season with plenty of praised heaped on him from head coach Will Muschamp. He did not rack up yardage or touchdowns in the season opener but completed 77.3 percent of his passes against Toledo. One week later on the road at Miami, Driskel went 22-for-33 for 291 yards, the most thrown by a Florida quarterback against an FBS opponent since the 2010 Sugar Bowl.
The Gators did not win that game against the Hurricanes, however, and a lot of it was Driskel’s doing. He was intercepted in the red zone twice, leaving anywhere from six to 14 points on the board in what wound up being a five-point Miami victory.
His season ended one week later when another bad read resulted in a pick-six. Driskel was not benched but rather knocked out, as he broke his ankle on the same play and dragged himself off the field, refusing medical assistance until he got to the sideline.
“Jeff’s a grown man. He’s as tough a competitor that I’ve been around from an athlete standpoint,” Muschamp said recently. “To have him walk off the field in what happened to him, he’s a lot tougher than me. That says something about his toughness and his mental edge he’s got about him. That’s why he has great respect, in my opinion, from the locker room, because of his competitive edge.
“I don’t think there’s any question: At the end of the day, guys respect competitors. Guys respect tough guys, and he is one.”
Driskel’s physical toughness has never been in question, but his mental toughness and ability to bounce back from mistakes and make game-changing plays has been an issue.
“The first thing that I want is a guy that is mentally tough, that you can’t shake him. It doesn’t matter if the crowd boos him running off the field. It doesn’t matter if you have a four-interception game. It doesn’t matter if … everybody tells you, ‘You’re not any good.’ There’s one guy in this world that can take Jeff Driskel’s confidence from him and that’s Jeff Driskel,” explained offensive coordinator Kurt Roper.
To that end, Roper believes Driskel has vastly improved in that area of the game.
“I think he is mentally tough. I think he’s got the right look in his eye.”
The relationship between the two men is exceedingly important if Florida is to rebound from its 4-8 record, the worst since the Gators went winless in 1979.
“Coach Roper’s been great since he’s gotten here. He’s a guy that’s going to be real positive. Just hearing good words about myself from him is awesome. Coach Roper has been a big help to our offense and to our team,” Driskel said.
Roper has spent time fine-tuning Driskel’s mind and mechanics. He already believes his quarterback is confident in his ability, but he also wants him to be decisive when choosing which receiver to target on the field.
It is to that end that Roper is also helping Driskel as the long ball has been notably absent from Florida’s offense over the last few seasons. Driskel spent the summer throwing deep passes to his wide receivers, and it has been a focus at practice as well.
“Coach Roper has really emphasized putting more air under it. More air equals more forgiveness,” he explained. “It gives the receiver more time to adjust. Receivers are just naturally better at locating the ball than [defensive backs] are. It’s just putting more air on it gives those guys more time to adjust to the ball.”
That is where Driskel has been succeeding, to the delight of his coaches and teammates.
Senior safety Jabari Gorman said Driskel is “making better decisions,” being smarter with the ball and challenging the defense with his tosses. He also noted that he did not remember Driskel throwing a single interception during fall camp, a fact Muschamp basically confirmed a day later.
“He’s been very good with the ball. I don’t think in any team periods we’ve had a turnover with Jeff,” Muschamp noted. “There may have been one in a one-on-one, a deflected pass. He’s been very good with the ball, making good decisions.”
Gorman is not the only teammate to praise on Driskel for his efforts both on the field as a quarterback and off the field as a leader. Junior left tackle D.J. Humphries called his signal caller “really fine-tuned,” noting how much more comfortable he appears to be running Roper’s up-tempo spread offense.
Redshirt junior wideout Valdez Showers shared a similar sentiment.
“[He’s] definitely more comfortable. I feel like this offense fits him more, his skill set to be able to run and be able to throw. He’s definitely made strides in getting more of a feel for the game and not being as robotic, going through his reads and everything. He’s getting the ball out fast, reading defenses, knowing where the open spots are going to be in the defense, making plays,” Showers explained.
Redshirt senior wide receiver Quinton Dunbar credits Driskel’s improvement to his extra work over the summer. Sophomore WR Ahmad Fulwood said the chemistry between the quarterback and his pass catchers has been “great.”
Perhaps most notable, however, is what redshirt senior linebacker Michael Taylor, who has gone against Driskel and the first-team offense for weeks now, has seen from the other side of the ball.
“I definitely sense confidence from the offense. I sense it from Driskel and that’s the main thing. You want your quarterback to go out there and be confident,” he said.
“I think it’s a lot easier spreading out the defense and be able to read what coverage you’re in, know where to go with the ball where if things break down. He can always use his legs, too, which is not a bad thing.”
With a pair of freshmen behind him and the team’s hopes for significant offensive improvement squarely on his shoulders (and hips), the Gators will only go as far as Driskel will take them in 2014.
He enrolled at UF with the pedigree, appears to finally have an offensive system that suits his style and possesses the best group of offensive skill players he’s had in three years.
But with talking season coming to a close and the 2014 campaign set to kick off for Florida on Saturday at 7 p.m., it’s officially put up or shut up time.
Photo Credit: Wade Payne/Associated Press