Whether or not senior running back Mike Gillislee (groin) will be completely healthy for Saturday’s game against the No. 23 Tennessee Volunteers – head coach Will Muschamp claimed Monday that he will be – the No. 17/18 Florida Gators may very well have some other players to rely on to keep the offense steadily moving forward.
Sophomore quarterback Jeff Driskel performed admirably on Saturday considering it was his first game as a starting signal caller. He went 13/16 for 162 yards, threw 17 yards for a clutch first down on a 3rd-and-11 opening drive that resulted in a touchdown and even had a huge 21-yard pick-up on a bootleg to ice the game for the Gators.
Driskel’s performance was not all roses, however. He got sacked eight times, locked on to his first read too often and failed to throw the ball away when plays broke down. Nevertheless, Muschamp’s confidence only increased when he reviewed the film.
“He does need to get rid of the football in some situations. We had some guys open that we could have hit vertically down the field for some big, big plays,” he said. “But again, the game will continue to slow down for him the more reps he gets, the more experience he gets. [...] The game will continue to slow down. He will work extremely hard at it. He’s hard on himself. He’s a competitor. He’s tough. He’s shown all of the things that I’ve seen and that we’ve seen throughout his time here at Florida.”
Driskel himself said Monday that he is now more aware of what he has to do over the course of a full game. Now that he is no longer competing against high school players, making a big play every time he snaps the ball from under center is simply not realistic.
“Just knowing that you don’t have to make a play every time,” he said when asked what he learned from his first start. “Don’t be scared to throw the ball away and live another day. I got to learn from that. Took too many sacks and most of them were on me.”
Of the eight sacks, about half were Driskel’s fault. There were also some offensive line protection issues and another play in which a wide receiver ran an incorrect route.
“I’m not exactly sure how many [should be attributed to me] but, like I said, I got to get rid of the ball earlier and not lock in on to my first read. Like I said, live another day if nothing’s open and someone’s coming at me – just throw the ball away,” he added.
Driskel also took a lot of hits on Saturday both from the sacks and on other occasions when he brought the ball down and tried to gain yardage with his legs. He said the coaching staff told him in the offseason about sliding but he still feels that, as a bigger-bodied player, he can take some hits here and there.
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“We want him to get down more in situations and obviously be smart in the situation,” Muschamp said. “It’s easy to sit here and talk about it as opposed to when there’s 90,000 people and you’re scrambling and you got a 300-pounder chasing you and you know where the first-down marker is and you want to get the first down. With that being said, you got to play smart and understand you get what you can get and let’s be smart about the situation.”
Luckily for Driskel he is not the sole member of the offense being counted on to make plays. In addition to Gillislee and redshirt senior wide receiver Frankie Hammond, Jr., who has been labeled the most consistent of the bunch early in the season, redshirt junior tight end Jordan Reed has come on strong over the first two games.
Reed followed up a three-catch, 33-yard performance against Bowling Green with team-highs of five receptions and 59 yards on the road at Texas A&M.
“He’s explosive. He’s definitely a match-up problem. They got to bring down linebackers or safeties on him. I’ll take him one-on-one with anybody. He’s definitely a guy where we want to get the ball in his hands,” Driskel said.
Senior Mike linebacker Jon Bostic, who has gone against Reed in practice throughout the offseason, is equally impressed with what he brings to the table for the offense.
“He’s athletic. He’s big. He can body you but at the same time he can run right by you. So you got to kind of be on the watch for everything. He can line up pretty much everywhere. He’s one of those guys that just can really frustrate a coordinator because of all the different types of things he can do,” Bostic said.
Muschamp said that confidence is the area in which Reed has improved the over the last few months. Though he was supposed to have switched from quarterback to tight end in 2010, Reed did not spend a full season at the position until 2011, when he actually missed four games (two early, two late) with a pair of injuries.
“Last year was his first year playing tight end ever. We all wanted him to be [Mark] Bavaro running around out there,” he said, referring to the famous New York Giants tight end. “Jordan is a fantastic athlete. He’s got really good ball skills.
“It’s not ‘add water, instant player.’ I know we all think that because Rivals put 48 stars by their name so they’re supposed to just be an outstanding football player the moment they walk on campus. It’s not ‘add water, instant player.’ It’s not. It takes a process to become a good player. Just because you’re a great athlete does not mean you’re going to be a really good football player. Sometimes it takes time. Last year was his first year, and he played extremely well.”
No one is expecting Driskel or Reed to become instant breakout players for Florida in 2012 but if both players continue to progress as they have through the first two games there is no telling how productive they can be for the Gators by season’s end.