It would be understandable if Florida Gators junior quarterback Jeff Driskel felt like a scapegoat after being forced to shoulder – and willfully accepting – the vast majority of the blame for his team’s loss to Miami on Sept. 7.
Though Driskel committed his fair share of miscues – most notably three untimely turnovers including two red zone interceptions – he expressed great confidence in the face of adversity when he met with the media for the first time in two weeks on Monday.
“No, not really at all,” Driskel responded when asked if his confidence has been shaken by his performance in the last game. “My coaches and teammates have full confidence in me and that’s all that really matters.”
At least publicly, his teammates and head coach have echoed that sentiment.
“We have total confidence in Driskel,” sophomore running back Matt Jones said. “We get down there [to the red zone] and break our protection sometimes. We really beat ourselves when we get in the red zone. We can’t score.
“We moved the ball up and down the field. We had a lot of total offensive yards and stuff like that. The trust is there with Driskel.”
Added Will Muschamp:”There was four or five plays in the game that he would have liked to have back, but he also made some really nice throws. He made some really nice throws on third down. … He was very accurate with the football.”
Offensive coordinator Brent Pease was provided with the opportunity to support Driskel on Tuesday when he spoke publicly and did to a point. Though Pease said Driskel played well overall two Saturdays ago and also blamed himself for some of Florida’s red zone mistakes, his words also spoke to a larger issue at hand: trust.
The Gators appear ready to take some decision making away from Driskel, at least when the ball gets inside the opponent’s 20-yard line.
“I got to do a better job. … We stress to the point, ‘OK, if we get in this situation, here’s what they’re going to play. You’re very limited to this and that’s all you really have. You got to be committed to that’s what you’re going to throw or throw the ball away and then put us in a situation to kick things,’” Pease explained.
“You got to buy into that as a player. You can’t all of a sudden just say, ‘I can complete this. I can find somebody. I can do this; I can do that.’ You can’t do it because defenses, at some point in time, take things away from you as an offense or you, as a player, develop a reputation and they know how to set you up for bad situations.
“So you got to be smart like that. You got to know what you built your reputation up as a quarterback or running back or whatever and understand your liabilities and things. Because we all got liabilities.
“I got to do a better job of maybe, I guess, limiting or controlling what we give him – the options. He’s mature enough. He’ll handle things.”
Pease latter added: “When we look back on it, it really comes down for us on we need to hold onto the ball and make about three better calls for him down there and make some red zone decision-making decisions that we don’t put ourselves [in bad positions]. And understand that I think we got a pretty good kicker and we got a good defense. We need to play off of those at times and handle that.”
There is nothing wrong with settling for a field goal on occasion, but an offensive coordinator seemingly resigned to relying on defense and a redshirt freshman kicker in Austin Hardin instead of having an innate desire to do what is necessary to scratch and claw for touchdowns is not a good sign, no matter how you slice it.
UF’s coaches can claim to remain confident in Driskel, but his coordinator and position coach spent a good portion of his 20-minute speaking engagement Tuesday expressing how he plans to give his second-year starter at quarterback fewer options and less responsibility during important moments in games.
That being said, maturity has certainly not been an issue for Driskel, who is cognizant of the fact that Florida wins football games when it holds onto the ball and does not commit costly penalties. “If we handle us, we’ll be fine,” he said.
He also appears prepared to bow to whatever regulations may be ahead for him.
“[The goal is] don’t try to do too much as a quarterback. … Just go with what you’re coached, don’t try to do too much and hold onto the ball when you run,” he explained. “For me, cleaning up the reads and taking what’s there and not trying to force anything, that’s what I’m going to have to do. And I really took that to heart. Just get back to the basics, take what’s there and move on to the next play.”
Pease is undoubtedly pleased to see his pupil come to that understanding, though it was also the stance Driskel took following UF’s other two recent losses. Against Georgia in 2012, he committed four turnovers including two interceptions and two fumbles. In the 2013 Sugar Bowl against Louisville, he threw a pick-six on the first play of the game, gave up another interception and fumbled away the ball, too.
“It goes along with being the quarterback, I guess,” said Pease of Driskel being put at fault for the loss. “Jeff’s a strong kid. I don’t think anybody deserves all the blame. That’s not the situation. It’s us. We look back on it as an offense, there’s calls that I didn’t put him in a great situation.
“I got to do a better job controlling that and helping him out.
“I’ll tell you this about Jeff Driskel: the kid has a lot of heart, passion. He loves the University of Florida. He understands when he makes a mistake, but he’s a competitor. He’s never just going to give up. I think you got to appreciate him at some point in time.”
Pease also has high hopes that Driskel can use this down moment as a springboard that can launch him to the next level as a player.
It is worth noting, after all, that the signal caller had one of the best throwing games of his career aside from the two unfortunate interceptions. Driskel passed for a career-high 291 yards – the most by a Florida quarterback since Nov. 19, 2011 – and helped two wide receivers gain more than 98 yards each for the first time since Nov. 3, 2007.
“Jeff’s better. It’s his second year [as a starter]. There’s still – I look back on Kellen Moore’s situation [at Boise State]. He was good his freshman year, he was better his sophomore year, he was – I guess I would say – great his junior year and great his senior year. There’s kind of some growing pains and everything as you’re going through things.”
There has already been plenty of pain in Driskel’s development.
The question now is if Florida is going to allow him to make his share of mistakes as he tries to blossom or stunt his growth by taking the ball out of his hands – and relying on a kicker – to put points on the board in critical situations.
Photo Credit: Alan Diaz/Associated Press