Redshirt junior quarterback Jeff Driskel may be drawing the ire of fans and some former Florida Gators football players, but the coaching staff remains completely behind him less than two weeks after arguably the worst game of his career.
“We have 100 percent confidence in Jeff right now, and he’s the guy we feel like we’re going to win football games with,” offensive coordinator Kurt Roper said on Tuesday, echoing statements made by head coach Will Muschamp last Wednesday.
“I’ve only been here a few months; I haven’t been here a few years. But I think Jeff is a talented football player,” Roper continued. “We went back and watched all of our third downs in drop-back pass [this season], and we felt like eight of them we needed to be critical of him. On the other 29, they were good decisions or we didn’t make the play. … It’s a team thing. We’ve got a guy that understands the game that’s a tough-minded guy and has the ability to make plays for us.”
Driskel’s tough-mindedness has not always been displayed on the field.
Despite going 11-2 as a starter in 2012, Driskel floundered in two of the Gators’ biggest moments. He turned the ball over a combined seven times during the Florida-Georgia game (two interceptions, two fumbles) and 2013 Sugar Bowl against Louisville (two interceptions including a pick-six, fumble).
He could hardly be blamed for UF’s ills in 2013 seeing as he only started three contests, though two red zone interceptions against Miami contributed heavily to that loss and a pick-six against Tennessee (thrown on the very play he suffered a season-ending injury) proved that he still had a long way to go in his development.
But Muschamp and Roper praised Driskel endlessly in the offseason, and he looked to have made some improvements at the start of 2014 when he rebounded from a poor first half against Kentucky to put together a career-passing night (295 yards, three touchdowns) thanks to some clutch throws in the second half and triple-overtime period.
Any positivity – and there was little of it to begin with – got washed away at Alabama two Saturdays ago when Driskel once again imploded in a tough environment. How bad was Driskel? He completed 32.1 percent of his passes for 93 yards and threw two interceptions while continuing to struggle with the deep ball. Sure, he scored two touchdowns (one on the ground), but that hardly made up for his miscues.
Impatience and indignation reached a crescendo in the fourth quarter and carried on through the Gators’ off week. Yet on Monday, the first time he spoke since that dreadful afternoon (when he took full responsibility from his failures), Driskel stood strong and maintained in his poise in the face of repeated questions about his mindset and football-playing competency.
“There’s a lot out there so you can’t really shield yourself from all of it. That’s just part of playing quarterback here,” explained Driskel. “I’ve never been one where that stuff gets to me, whether it’s people saying, ‘You’re the best,’ or people saying, ‘You’re the worst.’ You just got to be even keel and keep moving forward. … I’m grown. I can handle it.”
Muschamp is proud of the way his quarterback has handled the situation and taken ownership of his play. He believes that Driskel fully recognizes what his faults are and understands that he needs to get better.
“[The criticism is] part of the deal. Be careful what you ask for when you want to be the quarterback at Florida. That’s part of it. He understands that. I don’t know if physically or mentally there’s any tougher kid that I’ve been around. He takes the heat and understands that comes with the territory,” Muschamp said.
“[He’s] about all the right things, and I think again, he will continue to move forward this season and he’ll make the Gator Nation proud he’s their quarterback. I know the majority [of people] are… that’s the frustrating part, that you’ve got to listen to the negativity of a small few. But that’s part of it.”
The “small few’ criticizing Driskel include local and national media, college football analysts and former Gators football players including NFL Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith, who has since apologized to Driskel, Muschamp and the team for calling for a new quarterback during the Alabama game.
“It’s something that was said…[Smith] was upset,” recalled Driskel. “Obviously there were a lot of Gators fans that were upset. But I have a lot of respect for him and he’s a great player here, so it’s just something that he said in the heat of the moment. It’s no big deal. …
“People are passionate about the Gators either way. I don’t think there’s any panic in this building. … Fans have the right to overreact, but we’re not panicking here.”
To that point, Muschamp and Roper have both been adamant that Driskel has received nearly all of the first-team repetitions at quarterback over the last week-plus.
Perhaps that confidence-building – not deserting their starter after one atrocious performance – is part of the reason why Driskel was so poised when he spoke with the media on Monday. Whether he is able to convert that poise into a mistake-free (or mistake-reduced) performance Saturday at Tennessee, well, that’s another story.
“It’s been a long two weeks. We’re ready to get back out there,” Driskel said.