HOOVER, Ala. — The biggest question for me on Day 1 of the SEC Media Days surrounds Florida. Will the Gators, coming off a dreadful 2013 where they went from being ranked preseason No. 10 in the Coaches Poll to 4-8 (their worse year since 1979), be able to make a big jump back into the Top 25 this fall?
Or, more specifically, can new Gators OC Kurt Roper, a David Cutcliffe protege, put a jolt into what was the nation’s No. 110 offense by elevating QB Jeff Driskel and help save embattled coach Will Muschamp’s job?
Roper, the old Duke Blue Devils’ play-caller, has the pedigree to make it happen. He helped Duke to a school-record 10-win season and a spot in the ACC title game in 2013; he’s also helped develop Eli Manning at Ole Miss and later turned Thad Lewis into an NFL quarterback and Sean Renfree into an NFL draft pick.
Muschamp knew he — and the three players he brought to Hoover — would get plenty of questions Monday in Alabama about his hot seat status.
"It’s be careful what you ask for," Muschamp said. "You want to be the head coach at Florida? Then you better learn to take the criticism. It’s part of the deal. They didn’t hold a gun to my head to take the job. There will be a lot of chatter about hot seat business. That’s part of it. The way you combat that is having a winning football team and winning football games, which is what we’re going to do."
In order for that to happen, Muschamp needs Driskel, the former five-star QB recruit who missed most of last season with a broken leg, to blossom. Driskel committed to UF to play in Urban Meyer’s spread attack but has ended up being the quarterback for Florida offensive coordinators Charlie Weis and Brent Pease. This season, Roper comes in and it’ll be more like the Meyer spread running game, only more up-tempo and more of a pro-style passing game.
"It’s a total 180-degree of thought process from where we were coming from on offense," Driskel said. "Before we were going for time of possession and controlled the ball a lot. Now we want to get in as many plays as possible."
Driskel has just a 14-10 TD-INT ratio in three seasons, but inside the program there’s still a lot of optimism about his potential. Muschamp said former NFL head coach Mike Mularkey has been around UF in the offseason and pegged Driskel as a first-round talent. Muschamp also loved the fit of his QB to the new scheme. "This is what (Driskel) was recruited to Florida to do.”
In addition to asking Driskel to shed 8-10 pounds to allow him to have even better mobility, Roper has pushed his new QB to get better on several fronts, starting with touch throws and down-the-field passes.
"With the touch throws, you gotta feel it come out of your fingers more," Roper said. "It’s almost like he’s not feeling it roll off his index finger enough. What I’m trying to get him to do is on touch throws, get him up a little bit more on his toes and really feel it come out of his fingers, so it’s less arm and more fingers. On the down-the-field throws, it’s the same thing.
“When you finish, you have to finish a little bit higher with your release and feel it come off your fingers to control the amount of air. A lot of guys will throw it too flat. That’s what happens when they try to over-throw it or try to strong-arm it. He needs more touch, more fingers on both those types of throws."
Another point of emphasis is for Driskel and the offense to work faster and for the QB to make better decisions. "The first thing they gotta understand is the amount of time that they’re working with," Roper said. "We try to work under three seconds in decision-making. We’re trying to play fast. Once they understand that, ‘OK, this is the time,’ then we tie that time to their feet. And after they’ve gone through what I call ‘gathers’ — people call hitches — well, once they’ve hitched a third time, that ball better be gone. They’d better have made a decision and the ball’s out.
“If not, you’ve got to throw it away or you’ve got to run with it. That’s how you do it. You build a passing game that can get the ball out immediately. If you’re not building a passing game that can get the ball out immediately, then you’re going to hold on to the ball more and you’re gonna have some problems."
Two other things Driskel said he has worked on: strengthening his grip so he can fire the ball without the laces when need be, and becoming quicker laterally since he knows he’s going to be counted on more in the run game.
With this transition to a new Gator offense, Roper has put more responsibility on Driskel for handling protections.
"It’ll be the same thing Peyton (Manning) did in college, is what Driskel’s doing," said Roper, a former UT staffer. "In that system, there are front calls. (Peyton) was ID’ing the MIKE (linebacker). I think the biggest thing with that is if you don’t understand protections, then you don’t know your problems, with your problems being when a guy comes free that you can’t block. That means you have to get the ball out even faster or change your protection or whatever else it is. I want a guy to know his problems and Jeff understands that and understands protections and those things.
"I think that is one of the things that is different in this system. Here, before I think the line handled all protections. Now, I want the quarterback in charge of it because you’re the one that’s gonna get hit. So you better damn sure know what’s going on. And if you do, now you can play even faster. We spent a lot of time on protections. We’re still working on protections. I just put it into steps.
“Your first step is know your problems. If you know your problems, you can react to your problems. Step two is if we can start fixing our problems, we can start manipulating our protections. Get the problems picked up. I tell em, ‘Hey, I don’t care if in four years, all you know is Step 1, then we’re good. Step 2 is down the line, and he’s already working into Step 2 down the line. And he’ll function just like Eli did. Same protection system."
What’ll really help Driskel is if he has a few playmakers emerge from what has been an underwhelming receiving corps. On Monday, Muschamp really talked up Andre Debose, a slick slot receiver/returnman coming off an ACL injury. Both Driskel and Gator DB Vernon Hargreaves also raved about sophomore DeMarcus Robinson.
"He has all talent in the world," Driskel said. "He’s putting it together. He’s come a long way since a year ago."
Hargreaves, who said former LSU star Odell Beckham was the best receiver he faced last year, put Robinson’s talent in that category and predicted big things from the 6-foot-2, 200-pounder. Driskel also will be playing behind what he said will be UF’s best O-line in the four years he’s been in Gainesville. So there is plenty of reason for optimism.
As for any burden of trying to save Muschamp’s job, Driskel downplayed any of that talk.
"Obviously we’re behind our coach 100 percent, but we’re not playing to save his job," he said. "We’re playing for the University of Florida, and we’re playing for each other. We are behind Coach Muschamp 100 percent, but that is not on our minds at all."
* Some big news from Auburn with Gus Malzahn announcing that Carl Lawson, the Tigers’ standout young DE, had to have surgery on his ACL and will miss most, if not all, of the season. Auburn was already a bit thin at end, although Gabe Wright has shed about 15 pounds from the 303 he played at last season and could help outside; Montravius Adams could also help pass-rushers LaDarius Owens and Elijah Daniels. Also, keep on an eye on JC transfer DeVonte Lambert.
As for Lawson’s potential, Wright called him an absolute freak, with three-and-out potential.
* The other big talk with the Tigers surrounded the absence of QB Nick Marshall, who Auburn kept home after he got cited for marijuana possession. "I know he is truly remorseful," said Wright. "I know that by the look in his eyes and the words that came out of his mouth."