Jeff Driskel's Second Act
RUSTON, La.—It's a dead, gray morning 20 hours deep in a November raincloud in north-central Louisiana. The rain is coming down in sheets; strip mall parking lots have become ponds, and sidewalks are streams. The wind, when it gusts, is enough to bend the primordially huge bald cypresses that edge the interstate. "Perfect north Louisiana deer-hunting weather," a soaking tailgater observes.
Two hours before kickoff at Louisiana Tech University, a '90s rock cover band is playing for a crowd of two near the west entrance to Joe Aillet Stadium. Only the most devout tailgaters have staked out spots, and a single column of smoke wafts from the lone group crazy enough to consider grilling in this mess.
Some 750 miles away in Gainesville, Fla., the Gators are trailing Vanderbilt 7–6 at halftime at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, which could seat the entirety of Ruston four times over. It has been nearly a month since Florida's redshirt freshman quarterback Will Grier was suspended, and his replacement, sophomore Treon Harris, is 7 of 15 passing for 101 yards with an interception at the break. The game has been another trudge through the muck for Florida's offense, but even with all the demands for change echoing across social media and in the stands at the Swamp, you can bet your life there is one name not a member of the Gator-chomping faithful would dare call. Most Florida fans don't even know where he went, save the couple dozen who have fired off angry emails toward Ruston—where Jeff Driskel, in his Bulldog blue, has just gotten off a team bus.
Jeff Driskel. The name isn't spoken in Gainesville. It's spit, sighed. But the young man who takes the field in Ruston on Nov. 7 is hardly the picture of a villain. He is tall—6' 4"—with strawberry blonde hair and slightly protruding ears. He is baby-faced and stoic, the latter a product of four trying seasons. You see, five years ago, Driskel was tabbed for an impossible task: to succeed Tim Tebow, a quarterback whose followers make up something akin to a religion, the blindest faith college football has ever seen.
In that, Driskel was doomed before he started, and at Florida after Urban Meyer's departure, dysfunction prevailed. Driskel, fairly or not, took the blame and lost his job. But he didn't lose football. Now, a year removed from the most difficult season of his life, the player who was supposed to be the Gators' savior has quietly gone about saving himself.
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By 2014 Mary Driskel wouldn't attend a Florida game without headphones. Whether her son was playing or riding the bench, she didn't want to hear it: the complaining, the disparaging, the rejoicing when he was pushed aside. And so, from the opening kickoff to the final knee, Mary let music drown out the game her son had sat at the top of four years before.
In the fall of 2010, Jeff Driskel was the premier quarterback recruit in the country, a senior at Hagerty High in Oviedo, Fla. He was big—6' 4", 225 pounds, nearly the size he is now at 22—and boasted an uncanny pocket presence, quick instincts, speed and strength. Every college coach in America coveted the dual-threat prospect, and when he chose Florida, it made sense. It was his home-state team, with a tradition of SEC success, and it would need a new starter under center by the '12 campaign at the latest.
For a few years, his career unfolded according to plan. As a freshman Driskel backed up senior John Brantley, and the following season the starting job was his. Over 12 games in 2012, the sophomore completed 63.7% of his passes for 1,646 yards with 12 touchdowns and two interceptions while leading the Gators to an 11–2 record, a Sugar Bowl berth and the No. 9 ranking in the final AP Poll.
Going into 2013, Driskel was Florida's darling, dating a Gators cheerleader (she is now his fiancée), his team ranked 10th in the country. But in the third game he suffered a season-ending leg injury. Without its quarterback, Florida went 4–8, finishing the season on a seven-game skid, its worst losing streak since 1979. When Driskel returned the next fall, it was to a climate of malaise in Gainesville. Fourth-year coach Will Muschamp's job was on the line, and when his quarterback started slow—a 54.7% completion rate, five touchdowns and six interceptions through four games—Gators' fans called for change despite a 3–1 record. Then came a 30–27 loss to LSU and a 42–13 thrashing at the hands of Missouri that saw Driskel sacked four times and picked off twice. Benched after the loss to the Tigers, Driskel played only twice more before getting snaps in the Birmingham Bowl, a 28–20 victory over East Carolina. "I think it says a lot about him as a person," then Gators interim coach (and current Maryland head coach) D.J. Durkin said after Driskel went 8 of 17 for 48 yards in that game. "The amount of adversity he's had to go through in his career, to be honest, I don't know if I could last through that."
By that point, though, Driskel had already decided: He had lasted plenty. Having graduated in 2014, he would be finished at Florida after the season.
"I contemplated hanging them up there," he admits, but after having conversations with coaches he trusted at Florida, other mentors and family members, he decided to stick with football for at least another season rather than go immediately into the business world. "The continuing message, always, was [that] you are a person who plays football," Driskel's mother says. "Football doesn't define you. If you love the game, keep at it, keep doing it, and decide when you're done. Don't let someone else."
Not one to waste time, Driskel had already settled on his destination by the day of the bowl game: Louisiana Tech. Earlier in the fall, soon after he'd begun to consider transferring, his roommate, Kyle Crofoot, had floated the Bulldogs as an option. Kyle's father, Kroy, is a longtime friend of Louisiana Tech coach Skip Holtz, and both Kroy and Kyle believed Holtz's players-first approach would appeal to Driskel. Plus, the Bulldogs were looking for a quarterback after enjoying success with a fifth-year graduate transfer from Iowa, Cody Sokol, in 2014. After talking with Holtz a few times, Driskel gave Louisiana Tech a verbal commitment as soon as he was granted his release from Florida. On Jan. 3, he played his last game for the Gators. On Jan. 5, he confirmed the transfer, and on Jan. 7 the school made it official.
Soon after, Driskel's mother got a call from Jackie Hargreaves, the mother of Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III. Jackie's husband, Vernon Jr., had coached with Holtz at USF, and she told Mary her son had made the perfect choice. Mary already suspected this was true. She'd watched Louisiana Tech's December games—a loss in the Conference USA championship and a victory in the Heart of Dallas Bowl—and noted Holtz's treatment of Sokol. He comforted the quarterback after a potentially devastating interception, rejoiced after every touchdown pass. "I thought, that's a coach who really, really cares about the kids," Mary recalls. "It seemed like [Jeff] would be taken care of as a person."
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Louisiana Tech's stadium bears the name of a man no one wanted. Joe Aillet, the Bulldogs head coach from 1940-66, was born Joseph Fuourka in New York in 1904. In 1905, he traveled to Opelousas, La., on an orphan train. Adopted—with a good Cajun surname to boot—and raised by a widow and a priest, Aillet coached college and high school ball across the state as a young man until getting the Louisiana Tech job. He spent the rest of his career in Ruston, coaching football, basketball and golf.
Now, 49 years after Aillet retired, in the stadium renamed for him after his death in 1971, Holtz has assembled a program that embodies the former coach's roots. Holtz himself had been put through the wringer by the time USF fired him in 2012, and he is all too aware that his business can render good, talented men unemployed. In '14, he hired Manny Diaz, freshly fired from Texas after a disastrous '13 campaign, as his defensive coordinator. A year later, Diaz was off to coordinate at Mississippi State. Sokol, too, was the odd man out at Iowa before Holtz transformed him into a player who finished '14 with more touchdown passes than all but 10 FBS quarterbacks. And then came Driskel, whose recent past Holtz had no interest in analyzing. "I never felt inclined to go back and watch a ton of Florida film to find out what was wrong," Holtz says. "I knew we needed a quarterback, and he was very talented."
Holtz wanted Driskel because of what he had once been, and what he was convinced the quarterback still was: an electrifying dual-threat talent who by then only existed on game film. And Driskel wanted Louisiana Tech because he believed it represented his best shot at reaching the NFL, in an environment where he could focus on football alone. Before committing, he spoke with Sokol over the phone. "When you're a fifth-year grad transfer, you don't want to hear all the bull," Sokol says. "You want to get straight to the point. I pretty much told him, 'Hey, [Holtz is] not going to hand you anything. You're going to have to come in here, work hard, earn the spot.' But I said this a great place to be, [that] this would be a great opportunity to end his college career on the right note and get a chance at the next level."
Louisiana Tech's roster, which returned most of its playmakers from a 2014 team that finished third in Conference USA in total offense, was another selling point for Driskel. It was the personnel, the coaching staff, the culture that drew his eye; he didn't even see Ruston until after giving his verbal commitment, but he still felt better informed than he had as a high school senior who had gone on countless recruiting visits. "Teams will try to get you in with the big-time programs, big-time facilities," Driskel says. "I wanted to commit to a coaching staff, commit to a program. I didn't want to commit to a piece of equipment or a big stadium. I wanted to make an unbiased [decision]."
And so he picked a coach who tells players they're welcome to stop by his house at any time, whose wife is famous for a sticky-sweet variation on puppy chow that she has nicknamed "Bulldog Crunch" and feeds to anyone who asks. He picked a town where every fast-food restaurant's sign bears a message cheering on the Bulldogs, because besides the eight-screen movie theater and the woods for hunting, there isn't much else to do. It's easy for Driskel to be a homebody. "I bet people not on the football team on campus, the majority of them have never seen me before," he muses, and that doesn't seem to bother him. Some members of his church group know he's the quarterback, he says, and anyone who does is apt to invite him over for a home-cooked meal. At bigger programs, Holtz says, "you lose sight of what you enjoyed about the game because there's so much more than playing football."
Not in Ruston.
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Soon after Driskel's commitment, Louisiana Tech offensive coordinator Tony Petersen flew to Orlando. He had already visited the quarterback once, as a recruiting formality, and this time he arrived laptop in hand, a room reserved at Driskel's high school. On two successive trips, coordinator and quarterback sat for six-hour crash courses in the Bulldogs' fast-paced, spread offense, during which Driskel scribbled constantly. "Jeff's absorbing it, but he's writing it," Petersen says. "He studies it. The next time I came, he had it down. He had watched the film. He's what those guys are looking for at the next level as far as [being] a professional."
During those sessions, Driskel asked Petersen what it would take to fit in with his new program come March, when he would enroll in MBA classes and begin spring practices. Petersen's answer: Show up, be quiet and earn teammates' respect. "He came in and worked his ass off," the coordinator says. Driskel made his big impression after spring break, when Holtz tested his team. The coach wanted to see who had spent break partying and who had gone to the gym, so he sent his players out to run twenty 100-yard dashes. "Jeff won every one of them," Holtz says. "He never bent over, never put his hands over his head. Won every sprint."
After a few weeks spent compulsively checking his team's roster to memorize names, Driskel fit in quickly with a group that had gone through the same hasty introduction a year before. His unassuming nature and quiet drive won fans immediately. "[He is] a guy who wants to keep playing the game and wants to be successful," junior receiver Trent Taylor says. "Wherever you go, if you keep that mindset, you're going to be successful at some point."
But perhaps the most meaningful endorsement comes from Ryan Higgins, Driskel's backup, who started as a freshman in 2013 and has since seen his job taken by two successive transfers. "Of course, ideally, everything would've happened a different way," Higgins explains, "but it's great to have the competition and him to push me, me to push him. The competition really brought us together, and the more time we spent competing with each other, the more we learned that we had in common. We just click." The two have bonded over a shared dry sense of humor and constant jockeying. Before most meetings, they play paper football on a table. Early in the season, bored in a hotel room, they invented a game in which they launch playing cards into an ice bucket. It has become a pregame staple. "I would like to say that I beat him almost every time," Higgins says. "He's definitely going to argue with that."
Really, though, Driskel can afford to concede a few games of Ice Bucket given his performance on the field this fall. Despite missing the Conference USA title game after a 58–24 loss to Southern Miss on Nov. 28, Louisiana Tech finished 8–4, and Driskel ended the regular season with 3,575 passing yards (164 more than he logged in four seasons at Florida) with 24 touchdowns and eight interceptions—along with 307 rushing yards and five scores. And those numbers, both Driskel and Holtz are quick to point out, could have been even better had the Bulldogs not chosen to spend entire halves of blowouts running the ball and intentionally stalling their offense. In a 27–17 win over Florida International on Sept. 26, for instance, the team ended the game on the eight-yard line taking a knee.
Even so, Driskel hasn't once complained. He's winning, and NFL scouts are showing interest. The numbers are still there, after all, and they, along with this newfound sense of comfort, have helped him shed the past four years. "It's never been about when I was at Florida," Holtz says. "You can't help but love the guy: his leadership, what he's done on the field. I don't know what happened at Florida. I just know what's going on here. I'm impressed."
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In the early days of his communication with Driskel last winter, Holtz couldn't help but wonder: What was wrong? Why had things gone so badly? He didn't care, really, because he knew Driskel had the physical tools to succeed. But still, the question nagged. "I kept asking, what's the problem? It was either he can't learn [a system], he can't process the information, he's not a decision-maker on game day, he can't read defenses, he can't see."
Any of those maladies could have proven costly, but Holtz trusted he could address whatever the issue might be. So, when Driskel arrived in Ruston, the coach watched him closely. When would the cause of his undoing reveal itself? It never did. "Every day though spring was, oh, check that one off—he can learn it," Holtz recalls. "Check that one off—he's a decision-maker. Check that one off—he can read defenses." The coach shrugs. Quickly, he learned he would rather not play psychologist. He'd prefer to stick to football. "One man's trash is another man's treasure," he quips.
Still, in the back of his mind, Holtz reminds himself: Be gentle. Understand. When Driskel arrived at Louisiana Tech, he needed to be taught, not inundated. "We don't need to jump, yell, scream, holler," Holtz says. Petersen, too, worried about inheriting a player who was beaten down mentally. He can't figure out what Florida did to Driskel, he says, and for a moment, the coordinator's voice trails off. He looks perplexed, because he has been analyzing this game for 25 years and can't, for the life of him, figure out what happened to Driskel—or how it didn't drive him mad. Maybe it did, Petersen says. "Maybe he hides it well."
Regardless, Driskel is a master of compartmentalizing, of appreciating Florida for what it was—the place he met his future wife, a school from which he graduated—and not saying a negative word. It's unbelievable, really, especially now that the quarterback has proven many of his critics wrong, shown that Florida was the problem, not him—not that he would ever say as much. Always, he demurs. Great school, great place, great four years. His mother guesses it won't be long before her son is back, tailgating for Gators games with his college buddies, cheering on the team whose fans once buried him.
But not everyone can understand Driskel's nonchalance, Holtz chief among them. In early September, on his radio show, the coach made reference to Driskel being a scapegoat at Florida. Gators fans flooded his inbox with vitriol, and just recalling their words leaves the permanently upbeat coach deflated. "If that had been me, I'd have thrown a salute at them and said see ya," he says of Driskel. His laugh booms. The salute, of course, is Holtz's two middle fingers.
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On Jan. 30, Driskel will play in the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala. He accepted the invitation in late November, and it's a deserved honor after the season he has had. It's also validation of his choice to return to football, affirmation that, yes, he is good enough to vie for a roster spot at the next level. Come April, Driskel will likely be drafted, and Petersen says he thinks the quarterback's stock will only rise between now and then. "A lot of times, [players get into the pre-draft process], and [teams] find the flaws, the things they don't like," Petersen says. "I think it's going to be just the opposite for Jeff. You can see what he's doing. You can see him process the field. He's not, oh, freaking out, [wondering] what do I do? Shoot, I've seen guys that are first-round draft picks who do that."
Because of his circuitous path and early college struggles, Driskel won't be one of the first 32 players off the board next spring. And projections of his draft status range from Petersen's optimism—that he'll go in the second or third round—to the more general consensus Holtz has gathered—that Driskel will be drafted, certainly by the late rounds—from visiting scouts. And no one is disagreeing with Petersen's assessment that Driskel is only getting better from here. As this season progressed in Ruston, Petersen, Holtz and the rest of Louisiana Tech's offensive staff joked increasingly about their quarterback's evolution. After shuffling through three coordinators—Charlie Weis, Brent Pease and Kurt Roper—in four years at Florida, Driskel had essentially taken a year of three different languages. (French I, German I and Italian I, Holtz laughs.) Louisiana Tech was Spanish I; now, finally, he is on to Spanish II.
But there is a bittersweet quality to the coach's bit. He and his staff often muse: Wouldn't it be great if they could have their talented graduate transfers for more than a season? And—this question borders on torture—what would their team and quarterback have become had Driskel chosen Louisiana Tech five years ago? He was never going to. That isn't how college football works. But Holtz can't stop his train of thought. It's a tragedy, he says, what happened to Driskel at Florida, and it pains him the whole nasty business couldn't have been avoided.
Holtz doesn't lament long, though. He is too proud of what his quarterback and this season have become, and on Dec. 19 Driskel's career will come full circle. Louisiana Tech will face Arkansas State in the New Orleans Bowl—on the same field Driskel played in the Sugar Bowl with the Gators three years ago. Though it was early then, that quarterback was an NFL prospect, and so too will he be in his final college game. It's unorthodox how he got here, painful and even weird. But as Driskel's days in Ruston come to an end, everyone here agrees on one thing, three words.
He deserves it.