GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- When Will Muschamp saw Jeff Driskel wave the trainers onto the field on Saturday, the Florida coach knew his quarterback was done for a long time. Though Driskel has garnered his share of criticism in his time as Florida's starter, his toughness was never in question. Driskel doesn't tap out. Something serious had happened.
At halftime, Muschamp learned Driskel would need surgery to repair damage to a bone in his lower leg. He'll be out for the season. The Gators -- for whom every 2013 season preview can be summed up by the phrases "great defense," "so-so offense" and "it could all go to hell if Driskel gets hurt" -- were suddenly redshirt junior Tyler Murphy's team.
Who is Tyler Murphy? He's the guy who hadn't thrown a pass in a game since 2009 before an ill-fated two-point conversion attempt at Miami two weeks ago. On Saturday, Murphy jogged in to replace Driskel with the Gators trailing Tennessee by the touchdown the Volunteers scored on the pick-six that took place moments after Driskel's injury. Murphy is the former two-star recruit and Temple commitment from Wethersfield, Conn., who sent some film to Florida late in the 2009 season and thought he was getting pranked when then-offensive coordinator Steve Addazio -- a childhood friend of Murphy's father -- and head coach Urban Meyer called in January to ask him to take an official visit. He's the guy who said no every time someone suggested he switch positions. He's the one who decided he'd made too many friends in Gainesville to transfer and start over at another school. So he stayed even though it meant he might never play a meaningful snap.
Murphy's first completion in a game since high school went to wide receiver Solomon Patton over the middle to convert a third-and-eight in the first quarter. Murphy's first touchdown pass since high school came early in the second, when he dumped the ball to Patton, who sliced through Tennessee's defense for a 52-yard score. "My job was easy," Murphy said of his first collegiate touchdown pass. "Solo did all the work. I went over to Solo and told him thank you."
Little else looked easy during Florida's 31-17 win. The teams combined for seven first-half turnovers and seemed determined to set football back at least 100 years. If you didn't have to watch it, then count yourself among the lucky. But since I did have to watch it, you'll have to peruse a few choice tweets just to have some idea of what the announced crowd of 90,074 at The Swamp had to endure.
So now you fully understand the quagmire into which Murphy was tossed. He did make mistakes. The bounce-off-the-facemask fumble happened when Murphy confused the cadence, prompting center Jonotthan Harrison to snap the ball early. But Murphy also looked more collected with each play. By the time the second half started, he looked as if he'd taken every first-team rep in practice. "It's one thing when you get thrust in there," Muschamp said. "It's another thing when you get a chance to think about it a little bit." On Florida's first possession of the second half, Murphy converted a third-and-10 by hitting Quinton Dunbar down the sideline for a 31-yard gain. This time, Murphy's throw did most of the work. The Gators scored a touchdown on that drive. They scored another on the following drive to take a 31-10 lead. Tennessee, already working against a severe talent gap, had no chance at that point.
Volunteers coach Butch Jones decided this week that his quarterback would be anyone but Justin Worley. So Jones started redshirt freshman Nathan Peterman, from nearby Fruit Cove, Fla., and defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. and the Gators' defense ate Peterman alive. Peterman's final line: 4-of-11 for five yards and two interceptions. Worley entered the game late in the second quarter and got the offense moving, but Jones may want to get on the horn on Sunday with some of the recruits whose verbal commitments won Tennessee the 2013 Summer Recruiting National Championship. Here's an idea of how those calls might go.
Jones: Son, we really think you could contribute for us immediately.
Recruit: I'm ready coach. I'm so excited for next September I could spit.
Jones: No, I mean immediately. Can you enroll tomorrow?
And that's why no one in Gainesville should get overly excited about how Murphy (8-of-14, 134 yards, one passing touchdown; 10 carries, 84 yards, one rushing touchdown) handled the offense in place of Driskel. After all, Driskel carved up Tennessee's defense in Knoxville last season. Florida's offense rode its defense for most of the remainder of 2012. Murphy gets games against Kentucky and Arkansas before he gets his official SEC baptism against LSU in Tiger Stadium on Oct. 12.
Still, before he gets thrown to the Tigers, let's pause for a moment and consider Murphy's unlikely journey from two-star prospect to starter for a program that won 11 games last year. Meyer and Addazio offered Murphy a few weeks before National Signing Day in 2010. In 1 AT (After Tebow), Murphy was another body to add depth behind John Brantley. The other quarterback signee in that class, Trey Burton, quickly morphed into a wildcat quarterback/fullback and eventually became a full-time fullback. Jordan Reed, the quarterback signee from 2009, moved to tight end. Brantley was supposed become a star, but that never happened. No matter, Meyer was already deep into the recruitment of an Orlando-area player perfect for his offense. That player was Driskel.
Driskel stuck with the Gators even after Meyer resigned. Muschamp arrived, and he and then-coordinator Charlie Weis also landed Jacoby Brissett in the class of 2011. Murphy remained buried on the depth chart and seemed destined to stay buried. Position changes were suggested but always declined. "I just didn't want to give up," Murphy said. "I thought if I'd changed positions, I would have given up on myself. And I probably wouldn't have been able to live with myself."
Transferring never felt like a viable option, either. "At the end of the day, I was happy here," Murphy said. "And like I said, I'm not afraid of competition." So Murphy accepted the possibility he might never significant snaps. "It was always in the back of my mind," Murphy said. "I might never play. But I just kept working hard and kept faith in myself."
It became apparent after last season that Driskel had won the job going forward, and Brissett transferred to NC State. Suddenly, Murphy was the backup almost by default. Before preseason camp opened, Driskel was sidelined by appendicitis. For the first week of camp, Murphy ran the first-team offense. Muschamp and coordinator Brent Pease noted how Murphy attacked every rep as if he were playing in a game. Three years spent fighting for practice snaps had trained Murphy to cherish every one. "If you got a rep, you had to make the best of it," Murphy said. "That really helped me. I really focused on what I had to do and tried to be perfect with that rep."
So Murphy, who is on pace to graduate in December with a degree in telecommunications, will now get all the reps he ever wanted. He wasn't the first choice to run Florida's offense, but he's now Florida's only choice. (Unless he gets hurt. In that case, redshirt freshman Skyler Mornhinweg, the son of New York Jets offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg, will be the only choice.) Murphy waited his turn, and now he plans to make the most of it -- just as soon as he realizes the enormity of the job he just inherited. "It hasn't really hit me yet," Murphy said. "But it's going to have to hit me soon."