GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Now that Gators offensive coordinator Brent Pease has had time to review and reflect upon his first season, he realizes there were times last season when young quarterbacks Jeff Driskel and Jacoby Brissett may not have grasped as much as they let on.
They were in a tight battle to become the starter in an offense that featured different terminology and plays from the system they learned as freshmen, and neither guy wanted to give the other an advantage.
It happens sometimes with young players. Driskel won the job and started 12 games. Brissett transferred after the Sugar Bowl to NC State.
“I think maybe they hid some things a little bit, not mischievously, but just in a learning factor, trying to know it all,’’ Pease said.
Pease is much more at ease in Driskel’s knowledge of the offense entering his second season as Florida’s starting quarterback. He saw Driskel in the film room constantly since Florida’s loss to Louisville in the Sugar Bowl, determined to improve in his role as the team’s clear-cut starter.
“This kid’s invested a lot now up to this point, getting back and watching film,’’ Pease said. “A lot of it is based around understanding the protections a lot better and when he has to get rid of the ball and where he has got to see his reads, just seeing the field better as a quarterback.”
The 6-foot-4, 237-pound Driskel passed for 1,646 yards and 12 touchdowns last season, throwing only five interceptions with ball security placed at a premium.
While Driskel’s performance was good enough to lead the Gators to an 11-2 record and their first BCS bowl since 2009, his passing stats didn’t put fear into opposing defensive coordinators. They knew from watching film that Driskel rarely threw deep and was just as likely to beat you with his legs – he rushed for 431 yards – as his right arm.
The Gators ranked last in the SEC at 146.3 passing yards per game, or less than half of what Boise State’s offense averaged (309.4 yards per game) under Pease in 2011.
As the Gators opened spring practice Wednesday, developing a more dangerous passing game with Driskel running the offense is a priority. The fact Driskel won’t be splitting first-team reps should help the cause.
“We’ve got to be a better throwing team,’’ Pease said. “That starts with him.”
Driskel’s best game through the air was in a victory at Tennessee when he threw for a season-high 219 yards. He passed for 200 yards or more only one other time, throwing for 203 yards in a victory over Kentucky.
Driskel may not have posted Heisman-type numbers, but he did enough to earn the trust and respect of Gators coach Will Muschamp for the way he led the team.
Driskel has earned more of Muschamp’s respect from the way he approached his firm grip on the job heading into 2013.
“Jeff’s really attacked the offseason from a mental standpoint as far as film is concerned and really studying what he can do to be a better quarterback,’’ Muschamp said. “That’s part of the maturation process in becoming a better player.”
For the Gators to become a more dangerous offensive team, Muschamp isn’t putting everything on Driskel’s shoulders.
The coaching staff has spent a lot of time recently in quality control sessions, with the offensive staff grading the defense’s performance and the defensive staff pouring over film of the offense.
Muschamp climbed the coaching ranks as a defensive coordinator and has a good idea how the Gators offense can improve and where that improvements needs to show up.
“We need to be a better situational football team,’’ he said. “When I talk about that, I’m talking about red zone, one minute, third down, all of the critical times in the game where you have to go make good decisions as coaches but also have a great understanding as players of the situation in the game.
“[We’re] really studying ourselves in those situations.”
The Gators won’t divert from the blue-collar mentality that Muschamp has worked hard to build in his two seasons at the helm. Like Pease, he wants a better passing attack, but that doesn’t mean implementing a West Coast offense and throwing the ball 50 times a game.
Instead, there will be a continued emphasis on developing a physical offensive line and running game to help Driskel have more opportunities in the passing game.
With 1,000-yard rusher Mike Gillislee gone, sophomore Matt Jones enters spring camp at the top of the depth chart at running back. Behind Jones are redshirt junior Mack Brown and true freshman Kelvin Taylor.
At 6-2, 226, Jones showed glimpses late in the season of being the kind of big, bruising running back Muschamp wants to build the offense around. The addition of Taylor, listed at 5-10, 215 pounds on the spring depth chart, provides key depth and the potential of a physical and dangerous 1-2 punch like Alabama has used in recent years with Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson, and later Richardson and Eddie Lacy.
“I want one guy to be able to carry the load, but that’s tough to do with the number of plays you want to run,’’ Pease said. “You’re always going to have that guy you want to build depth on.”
Junior Hunter Joyer returns as the starter at fullback. Muschamp announced Tuesday that to add depth at the position, defensive back Rhaheim Ledbetter (5-9, 207) and linebacker Gideon Ajagbe (6-3, 243) will take reps at the position this spring.
While Driskel has the quarterback job locked down, the rest of the offense, including receiver and offensive line, has some holes to fill this spring.
Pease’s advice to the players is simple and direct – learn as much as you can, perform well in practice, and win a job.
“Every position for us is open,’’ he said. “You want a role, go earn a role. We’re not giving you a role.”