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After injury-shortened year, Gators' Jeff Driskel ready for spotlight

After an injury derailed a forgettable 2013 season, QB Jeff Driskel is ready to thrive under first-year Florida offensive coordinator Kurt Roper. Photo:

After an injury derailed a forgettable 2013 season, QB Jeff Driskel is ready to thrive under first-year Florida offensive coordinator Kurt Roper.

HOOVER, Ala. – Jeff Driskel didn’t spend much time on the job – he only wanted a little extra summer spending money – but he learned what mattered. There is a correct way and an incorrect way to slice smoked brisket, and there is a recommended way to consume it.

“It’s got to be thin cut,” said the Florida quarterback, who brandished a knife for the Gainesville branch of 4 Rivers Smokehouse for six glorious weeks earlier this summer. “You’ve got to separate the fatty and the lean cuts.”

And when someone orders mostly lean, you’ve got to attempt to show them the error of their ways.

“Are you sure you don’t want to taste it?” Driskel would ask before offering a more marbled hunk to sample.

Before his stint at the barbecue joint, Driskel sampled first-year Florida coordinator Kurt Roper’s hurry-up spread offense and came away hungrier. After a lost season that ended for Driskel far sooner than it did for his teammates, the redshirt junior craves a chance to prove the Gators aren’t as awful as they were in the second half of last season. Now, he’ll be running an offense more similar to the one he was recruited to run, and he’ll have a chance to erase the memories of a 4-8 campaign that was Florida’s worst performance since going 0-10-1 in 1979.

“It’s not something you want to talk about every day,” Driskel said. “It’s a sore subject. But at the end of the day, it still happened.”

How Florida, Jeff Driskel hope to bounce back
Sports Illustrated's Andy Staples and Zac Ellis discuss how Jeff Driskel and Florida hope to improve offensively under a new system.

Driskel said the Gators stopped harping on 4-8 earlier this summer, choosing instead to look ahead to the possibilities for a revamped offense and a fairly deep defense. The pain of losing can only drive so many workouts.

“It’s something that you don’t want to do again, but I don’t think that’s why you go work hard,” Driskel said. “You work hard because it’s internal. It’s something that you love. If you don’t work hard, you’re going to be surpassed.”

Florida was surpassed by nearly everyone last year, but Driskel wasn’t around for most of the carnage. After fellow 2011 signee Jacoby Brissett transferred to NC State in January 2013, Driskel became the lone SEC-caliber quarterback on the Gators’ roster. That forced coaches into a bland offense that ignored the 6-foot-4, 240-pound Driskel’s speed because they feared running their quarterback too much would get him injured. Unfortunately for Driskel, pocket quarterbacks also get hurt, and Driskel learned that quite painfully while throwing a pick-six in a win against Tennessee on Sept. 21. Driskel released the ball as Volunteer Marlon Walls dragged him to the ground.

“I heard a crunch,” Driskel said. “I felt a crack.”

Then he tried to stand. Throughout his career, Driskel has been able to convince his mind to ignore physical pain. His brain won the argument this time. He had broken his right fibula and wasn’t coming back.

“I knew I was done for,” he said.

While Driskel tooled around campus on a one-leg scooter that constantly caught in sidewalk cracks, the Gators beat lowly Kentucky and Arkansas and then proceeded to lose their final seven games. The losses cost offensive coordinator Brent Pease his job. They also ushered in an offense that should fit Driskel more comfortably.

When he played at Hagerty High in Oviedo, Fla., Driskel was considered one of the nation’s top quarterback prospects. As it stands now, he isn’t even the best quarterback in his own Orlando suburb. That title currently belongs to Blake Bortles, who graduated from Oviedo High in 2010 and went to Central Florida – one of the few schools that recruited him as a quarterback. Driskel, meanwhile, had committed to receive the keys to Urban Meyer’s spread option at Florida.

Driskel’s size, speed and ability to throw on the run would give the Gators the replacement for Tim Tebow they didn’t have when Tebow left after the 2009 season. But Meyer resigned following the 2010 season – this time for real – and Florida hired former Texas, Auburn and LSU defensive coordinator Will Muschamp, who promised to run the same kind of pro-style, ball-control offense that was winning games for Alabama and LSU. Muschamp hired Charlie Weis to implement that offense, and when Weis left after a year to lose games at Kansas, Muschamp brought in Pease from Boise State.

If it’s third-and-8 and you have to take a hit to get a first down, you’ve got to do it,” Driskel said.​

Even when the Gators were winning 12 games in 2012, Driskel didn’t get much opportunity to do what he does best. The defense was excellent, and Pease got enough production out of tailback Mike Gillislee to allow Florida to grind out wins. Florida only averaged 146.3 yards a game through the air, and Driskel ran for only 413. Still, an 11-carry, 177-yard day against Vanderbilt showed what can happen when Driskel is turned loose in the run game.

Roper will have fewer qualms about running Driskel. Last year at Duke, Roper split the quarterback duties between Anthony Boone and Brandon Connette. He shouldn’t have to do that with Driskel, whose skill set marries the best qualities of both Blue Devils. But can Driskel stay healthy as a major part of the run game?

“We’ve had long discussions about how to use his legs in certain games,” Muschamp said. “We need to protect him. We can do that in the run game with the zone read. You can block the edge. You can slam the edge. You can do a lot of different things to keep an end off of him. Those are things we are going to have to be able to do.”

Though it might sound cold, the Gators also are more confident in Driskel’s backups and should be better equipped to handle losing Driskel. While Muschamp hasn’t named a No. 2 quarterback, freshmen Will Grier and Treon Harris seem to be athletic enough to run Roper’s offense and remain upright against SEC defenses. That should allow for less cautious playcalling and a more liberal use of Driskel, who said he won’t have injury on his mind.

“You can’t be worried about that,” Driskel said. “Obviously, you’re going to take some hits if you’re running the ball. That’s part of the game. There are some points where you’ve got to get down or you’ve got to get out of bounds. But if it’s third-and-8 and you have to take a hit to get a first down, you’ve got to do it.”

The Gators will need to do everything within their power to make more first downs after finishing last in the SEC in total offense (316.7 yards a game) and scoring offense (18.8 points a game) in 2013. Had Driskel been healthy, those figures might not have been so ugly. But he can’t worry about that now. All he can focus on is his meaty role in Florida’s new offense, one in which he vows he can flourish.

His coach agrees.

“This is his comfort level,” Muschamp said. “This is what he was recruited to Florida to do.”

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