Gators’ Jeff Driskel too valuable to take risks

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — From his place in the “Monday Night Football” booth last week, ESPN analyst Jon Gruden had some advice for Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III and his hotly anticipated return from a devastating knee injury.

“Think touchdown, then first down, then get down,” Gruden said.

In other words, protect yourself.

Which brings us to Jeff Driskel, the Florida quarterback who had a slew of highlights as a runner last season — some working from the zone-read option, others on scrambles from the pocket — in finishing as the team’s second-leading rusher with 413 yards and four touchdowns.

But Driskel, the junior from Oviedo, Fla., has heard from Coach Will Muschamp and offensive coordinator Brent Pease about being smart when he takes off with the ball. Given the way the offense is built, he’s too valuable to take any unnecessary risks.

It’s OK to try and make a play … but live to call another one.

Translation: Get down, dude.

“We’ve talked about that,” Muschamp said Monday, as his team commenced game-week operations heading toward Saturday’s season opener against Toledo at Florida Field. “Obviously, we’re going to do what we have to do to win football games, but we have explored, No. 1, him taking care of himself and getting down in some situations.”

Coming out of Hagerty High School, Driskel was rated the No. 1 quarterback by several recruiting services and not just because he could throw the football. He also rushed for 1,333 yards and 20 touchdowns as a senior.

“That’s part of our offense. We have some designed runs, and obviously, I’m going to have to take off at some points,” Driskel said. “I’m going to have to be smart with it, not take as many hits, get out of bounds when I can, and slide when need be. I’m still going to be running the ball; just need to be smart about it.”

Extra smart.

Remember, the running game carried the Florida offense last season, with tailback Mike Gillislee becoming the first UF runner in eight years to reach 1,000 yards, as the Gators finished third in the Southeastern Conference in rushing at 187.7 yards per game.

But with starting tailback Matt Jones having yet to take the practice field due to a viral infection, UF heads into the Toledo game with some questions about its ground attack. Jones could be cleared to rejoin the team next week, but it’s unlikely the sophomore — with zero practices to date — will be at full strength.

Junior tailback Mack Brown, with 167 yards over his first three seasons, will make his first career start against the Rockets. Brown, who carried 25 times for 102 yards in 2012, will be backed up by sophomore and former walk-on Mark Herndon, who was placed on scholarship last week and has never carried the ball, followed by Valdez Showers, who was moved from safety to running back a week into training camp.

True freshmen Kelvin Taylor and Adam Lane eventually could be in the mix, but both had trouble protecting the ball in live scrimmages during the preseason.

So until Jones gets back, the UF running game could very well be by committee.

“We’ll see who has the hot hand,” Pease said.

That still leaves Driskel as the team’s most experienced runner.

Quandary: He’s also the team’s most experienced passer, too.

That’s why Muschamp and Pease have stressed the importance of avoiding unnecessary contact, be it by running out of bounds or a simple feet-first slide. To hammer home their point, Driskel got a screening of greatest hits — as in ones delivered on the Florida quarterback last season —  in hopes he’d take the message to heart.

“We emphasized it more to him than maybe he wanted us to,” Muschamp said.

Proof to that point.

“I’ve never been one to slide,” Driskel said.

This would be a good time to start.

“He’s a competitive kid,” Pease said. “But he’s going to try to get this right.”