Finally, excruciatingly, Florida Gators head coach Will Muschamp decided enough was enough, and it was time for a change.
After he watched his starting quarterback, redshirt junior Jeff Driskel, combine to go 20-of-51 for 152 yards with one passing touchdown and five interceptions through seven quarters, Muschamp pulled the trigger and inserted true freshman Treon Harris.
The emotional boost was palpable from the field to the crowd and into homes and bars across the country.
“There’s no question that Treon brought some energy to us. The guy’s got a calmness about him, very confident. Very proud of how he responded in this situation,” said Muschamp. He added: “He came in and did an outstanding job and then Kurt [Roper] put him in some good situations. He certainly had a confidence about him that was nice.”
Described by the coaching staff as poised and decisive yet wet behind the ears, Harris finally got his shot on Saturday and responded by leading two scoring drives, the only ones of the day for Florida. The Gators scored 10 unanswered points to end the game despite Harris only throwing four passes (completing two for 17 yards) and carrying the ball four more times for 24 yards.
The intangible impact that Harris made was more important than what he physically accomplished. In fact, he did not do anything Driskel cannot or has not while Driskel has compiled a 14-4 record as a starter. Harris threw one particularly nice swing pass to sophomore running back Matt Jones, made another short throw and tossed a ball down the field that was nearly intercepted.
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“They have a lot of confidence in him. He’s one of those guys that has the ‘it’ factor,” Muschamp said. “He’s a winner. He won at Booker T. [Washington High School] for a bunch of games, no different than Will Grier, no different than other quarterbacks I’ve been around that are guys that have that certain aurora about themselves. We still have a long way to go with everything we’re doing, and we still need to make some tremendous improvements offensively.”
Harris, it now seems, will be part of those improvements that Florida plans to make as it prepares for its next game, a home contest against LSU on Saturday, Oct. 11. Whether Harris starts that game or is the Gators’ primary signal caller during the contest is another question altogether.
“Moving forward, just so I’ll get ahead of your questions, we won’t make any decision on who’s going to start our next ballgame today [on Saturday],” Muschamp stated.
To some, starting Harris may be the no-brainer decision. The fact of the matter, however, is this is not an Ingle Martin-Chris Leak situation for Florida. The Gators have been giving one quarterback, a fourth-year junior, nearly every first-team snap in practice while preparing another, a second-string true freshman, to be his understudy.
Also, while nearly all of Driskel’s mistakes against Alabama three weeks ago were his own, this Saturday at Tennessee, Driskel’s teammates were responsible for many of his perceived miscues.
Two deflections on passes that should have been caught resulted in interceptions. A couple of blown routes and blown protections forced Driskel to tuck the ball and take sacks. He was bad once again on Saturday, missing a number of other throws, but his teammates made the perception of his play much worse.
“It’s not all on Jeff Driskel, and I know that we’ll all write that it is on him. It’s not. We had a coupe protection issues. We had a missed [sigh of disappointment] we checked to a screen on third down and we don’t execute the screen; Jeff Driskel gets splattered. That’s not Jeff Driskel’s fault,” Muschamp explained.
“I’m not defending him. I’m a football coach and there are things that happen that are very, in my opinion, tough on him to be able to handle. Unfortunately, being the quarterback, you’re going to take the brunt. That’s part of it. He understands that. He’s mentally as tough as I’ve been around, and he’s going to be fine.
“And if we have to play two quarterbacks moving forward, we will do that. We’re going to do what it takes to win games.”
There it is: the most likely scenario for Florida moving forward – a two-quarterback system. A system that Roper has experienced and coached at numerous stops including last season at Duke. A system that, while not ideal for any team, can help win football games when there are two quarterbacks on the roster that either possess different skill sets or excel on particular types of plays.
Here’s Muschamp, for a second time, making it all-too-clear that full-out benching Driskel for Harris is unlikely to be his decision or solution for the Gators moving forward:
“At the quarterback position, it’s so easy to point the finger and say, ‘It’s all him.’ It’s not all him. We had a couple protection issues; I know for a fact two busted routes. We had some drops again, we had a back-shoulder ball that I thought was very catchable. There were some things in the game that it’s not all on Jeff Driskel. I know we’re all going to load up and point the finger at him. That isn’t right. It’s not right. It’s not accurate. He reads defenses very well. He takes the ball to the right spots. …
“But I felt like we just needed a change of momentum in the game. Turned out it worked for us. Proud of Treon and the way he responded in the game. We need to go back and watch the tape and say, ‘OK, why?’ Sometimes it’s hard when you have an A-gap linebacker running through and your running back, who is supposed to block him, doesn’t. You get in the situation, do you eat the ball or do you put the ball on the money? It’s easy for you and me to be critical, but sometimes it’s hard in that situation.”
Moving forward, at least as far as Florida’s next game is concerned, Harris is much more likely to be used as a momentum-changer and split-starter at quarterback than he is to be a full-out replacement of Driskel at the quarterback position.
Whether it is simply the fact that Harris has been unable to rep a large portion of the playbook or a coaching decision to go with the veteran as the starter and the freshman as a change-of-pace momentum asset, there is nothing out there pointing to Harris immediately taking over for good.
“[Driskel is] a tough guy. He’s also a big-picture guy and understands the game of football. He understands it’s not on his shoulders as far as some of the mistakes that have been made. We just got to tie some things together moving forward that we feel comfortable with and our players feel comfortable with. Kind of like we’ve done defensively. That’s our job as coaches,” explained Muschamp.
In the end, the Gators got the end result they wanted: a victory. How Florida progresses from here will be up to the coaching staff. For at least one day, Harris earned some stripes and plenty of respect. There should be no doubt that he will have the opportunity to pick up some more over the final seven games of the regular season, though how he goes about doing that absolutely remains to be seen.
“Winning on the road and winning an Eastern division opponent and making it 10-in-a-row over Tennessee at the University of Florida, that’s pretty special,” said Muschamp. “That says a lot about our guys coming on the road, perseverance, fighting through the adversity, had a great crowd out there. They were into the game, excited, and it was good to send them home disappointed.”