Jeff Driskel ready to show past is behind him in Gators spring game
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The scenes of UF quarterback Jeff Driskel’s college career have played out something like this:
Scene 1 — Wide-eyed freshman tossed into the fire against No. 1 Alabama, hurts his ankle and fades away.
Scene 2 — Wins a tightly contested quarterback battle and leads Gators to an 11-win season and Sugar Bowl berth.
Scene 3 — Commits three turnovers at Miami, gets roasted by fans, and then suffers season-ending injury.
Scene 4 — TBD.
A redshirt junior, Driskel heads into Saturday’s Orange & Blue Debut with a new offensive coordinator, a fresh playbook, a healed broken leg and a renewed outlook.
He is ready to close the book on the past and remind everyone why he was the No. 1-ranked dual-threat quarterback in the country coming out of Oviedo’s Hagerty High four years ago.
"I want to show them that I’m confident, that I didn’t let the Miami game or the injury take away from my confidence," Driskel said this week when asked what he hopes to show fans Saturday. "And I want to show everyone that I’m having fun out there playing the game."
His coaches and teammates have already seen those things from Driskel this spring.
Gators head coach Will Muschamp and first-year offensive coordinator Kurt Roper have praised Driskel publicly and privately to those who continue to ask about him.
Can Driskel move the same way he did before leg surgery? How is he adapting to his third offense in four seasons? Has he shown significant signs of improvement from the past?
"I’m very comfortable with where Jeff Driskel is," Muschamp said. "He’s throwing the ball extremely well."
Offensive coordinator Kurt Roper was familiar with Driskel prior to joining the Gators following six seasons at Duke, but he didn’t truly appreciate him until he settled into his office and started to watch film.
Roper was instantly impressed.
"The first thing that jumps out to me about Jeff is a guy that physically has the skills to be a successful quarterback in the SEC," Roper said Thursday. "That’s really where it starts. ‘Is the guy physically capable of getting it done?’ And his size, his athleticism, his arm strength, those things are really, really good.
"He’s got the ability to do that."
The last image most have of Driskel in uniform is the final pass of his 2013 season — an interception returned for a touchdown by Tennessee — and him heading to the locker room shortly thereafter on crutches.
The Gators never recovered, finishing last in the SEC in total offense (316.3 yards per game). While Driskel took heat for his two interceptions and lost fumble at Miami, the Florida offense had its most success in the two games he played.
The Gators racked up 415 yards in a win over Toledo and 413 yards in the loss to the Hurricanes, their two best yardage outputs the entire season.
"I thought I was going to have a really good year," Driskel said. "I was throwing the ball well. Had a couple of mistakes — costly mistakes — especially in that Miami game, but I felt like I was throwing the ball well. To have it all taken away was tough."
Driskel spent six months rehabbing his broken right fibula and then spent the first few practices of spring camp shaking off rust. He said Wednesday he is 100 percent healthy and has enjoyed playing in Roper’s more up-tempo, spread attack.
"Honestly, you can’t even tell it’s a new offense for him," Gators center Max Garcia said. "Jeff has been making some great reads and we haven’t even installed everything that we’re going to do. I’m really excited for Jeff. I think he is going to have a great year."
Driskel started to realize the potential of Florida’s new offensive scheme when he began to study Roper’s offense from his days at Duke. The Blue Devils won a school-record 10 games last season and moved up and down the field while averaging 31 points per game.
"When you turn on the film you see a bunch of guys making big plays," Driskel said. "It just gets guys really excited for this offense. I feel like it’s coming together pretty quickly.
"It’s relatively easy reads, a lot of progressions. Coach Roper’s big thing is get the ball out quick so that’s something I can hang my hat on."
Roper said Thursday he wants the quarterback to get rid of the ball in three seconds or less. That’s the best protection he knows of.
The 6-foot-4 Driskel has also shed 15 pounds from his listed playing weight of 240 pounds. Roper recalled Thursday that while at Ole Miss, Eli Manning would normally finish the offseason at around 225 pounds and then drop to under 220 by the time the season started.
Driskel, who has a bigger frame than Manning did in college, should have no trouble playing at a lighter weight in Roper’s view.
"Two hundred and thirty pounds is big enough to run and get tackled in this game," Roper said. "There’s a lot of running backs that are a lot less than 230 pounds and go through that. I think speed and quickness and being able to make people miss and protect himself are more important than 10 more pounds."
While Saturday is largely window dressing for the fall, it’s more than just another spring game for Driskel.
He is back on the field where he can impact a game, something he waited on for seven months. And if he makes a bad throw or two, he’ll quickly put those behind him, too.
He’s learned more than just another new playbook since Roper arrived.
"I’ve been around football for a lot of years now, so I feel like I know the ins and outs," Driskel said. "But I really do feel like [Coach Roper’s] kind of gotten into my head that you can always play the next play. We’re not always going to have the perfect play call, so don’t force something and make a bad play call worse than it is."
With the curtain about to be raised on a preview of Scene 4, Driskel is confident in the script.