One word can characterize the goal for many teams, in many sports, in many parts of the world, who did not accomplish what they wanted to the previous year, and set out to right those wrongs with the best performance they can possibly dream of in the upcoming year. 2013 Florida was not the only team in organized sports to lose more games than it won last year. 2013 Florida was not the only team in the world to fall victim to a nasty injury bug. And most importantly, 2013 Florida was not the only team to ever fall far short of its expectations.
Since his days working for Nick Saban at LSU, Will Muschamp has been generally acknowledged as a defensive genius. Those who slap that stigma on him are not wrong; Muschamp’s three defenses at Florida have statistically finished top ten nationally (even last year, the Gators had the 8th ranked defense in the country). But after going 4-8 and losing to Georgia Southern a year ago, it’s become clear that while defense may win championships, they certainly cannot do so alone.
They need help from an offense.
And despite the heavy criticism hurled his way by many over the years- or maybe because of it- the man who will direct the unit that will complement the defense may be as good a fit to do so as anybody in the country.
Jeff Driskel was born in Oviedo, FL, right outside of Orlando. Anybody who even casually follows college football recruiting knows that the state of Florida churns out some of the best high school football talent in the country. Yet even in high school, Driskel was accused of beating up on weak competition (funny how some it came from FSU fans, who surely know a thing or two about weak competition) and thus running up high numbers that did not accurately reflect his talent level. Gator fans were plied with “he’s going to flop once he gets to the SEC” by rival schools. Sure, he didn’t compete against the best opponents (at least by ridiculous Florida standards), but you can’t throw for almost 5,000 yards without being somewhat… well, good, can you?
Most people with a thimbleful of sense didn’t think so. Driskel was touted the #1 QB recruit in the nation coming out of high school. Gator fans were giddy at the prospect of replacing Tim Tebow with Driskel, a skinny kid with a big arm and a 4.5 40 yard dash. But he had the misfortune of entering Gainesville at a bad time. His freshman year was disappointing; the man who recruited him left the program, the new coach made the decision to start John Brantley over him, and Driskel eventually got hurt against Alabama, effectively ending his season. There were many more important things to discuss in terms of the Gators than Jeff Driskel at that point; Florida’s 7-6 record, their first year head coach, and later, their bowl game against Ohio State.
But as soon as the 2011 season ended, a fierce QB battle began between Driskel and Jacoby Brissett. There were a number of Gator fans and players who preferred Brissett over Driskel, but it was ultimately Driskel’s superior mobility that won him the job after an ugly 27-14 win over Mid-American Conference also-ran Bowling Green. However, Driskel winning the job didn’t quell the debate, as the Gator offense struggled at times during the year (9 points against Georgia, 14 against Missouri and 14 against LSU), there were some Florida fans grumbling that maybe Brissett should be the QB. Calls to start Brissett really heated up after the nauseating 17-9 loss to Georgia.
The debate might have escalated into an all out brawl among Florida fans, but it didn’t because of one curious fact: the Gators were winning games. Not in pretty fashion, but they were winning. Some fans were willing to turn the other cheek because Florida finished their SEC schedule at 7-1, and with two cupcake games to play before a road trip to FSU, it seemed a cinch that Florida would roll to an 11-1 record, and maybe find themselves in Atlanta.
It seemed like a cinch, that is, until Jeff Driskel got knocked out of the Louisiana game, and the Gators blew a 13-3 lead to allow the Rajin’ Cajuns to climb on top, 20-13. With nobody other than Brissett to turn to, Gator fans crossed their fingers… and then watched Brissett lead the Gators all the way down for the tying touchdown in the waning moments. After a three and out forced by the Gator defense, Louchiez Purifoy blocked the punt, Jelani Jenkins took it all the way home and Florida had survived the gigantic upset bid, 27-20. Of course, the blocked punt- and the fact that the game had to come down to one- was the talk of the Gator sports world in the waking hours.
However, once the emotion of the close call died down, people began to realize that Purifoy and Jenkins weren’t the only reason Florida won. Gator fans started to discuss among themselves Jacoby Brissett’s game saving touchdown drive in great detail. Support for Brissett skyrocketed. Look what he did in his first game. He had no idea he’d be called on. He hadn’t practiced with the first team. Imagine what he can do when he’s fully prepared and all the rust is shaken off. A ho-hum 23-0 win over Jacksonville State wasn’t exactly the best thing for Jacoby Brissett’s case to start, but there was the thought process among Florida fans that Brent Pease was saving everything for FSU the following week.
But it was Driskel who got the call against FSU, healthy and raring to go. We all remember what happened that day; Florida’s running game burned FSU for 244 yards on the ground. But Driskel was the QB, and he avoided the mistakes that would have won the game for FSU, the way they won the game for Georgia. He didn’t put up Heisman type numbers, but he played mistake free football other than a botched handoff with Mike Gillislee (that seemed to me like Gillislee’s fault more than Driskel’s).
So after joyous 37-26 win over FSU in Tallahassee, all was well and good in Gainesville. Driskel was back and winning games, and to Gator fans, that’s all that matters. Few fans will complain about much if the team is winning (and if they do, it’s usually amongst themselves). But then came the Sugar Bowl, a game that the Gators lost to Louisville in a much more lopsided fashion than the 33-23 final score would suggest. The cries to start Brissett rose up all over again from the piece of the fan base that wanted him. But a few days after the Sugar Bowl, Brissett announced his decision to transfer, leaving those fans extremely upset.
Then 2013 happened. After a relatively easy 24-6 win over Toledo, Driskel threw two picks against Miami as Florida lost the final game of the now defunct rivalry, 21-16. At this point, the Brissett supporters began howling. “Why did you let him transfer?” “He should have been our starter all along!” “Wake up, Pease!” The attention of those fans then shifted to Tyler Murphy, and the cries to start Murphy replaced the Brissett propaganda. Unfortunately, those fans got their wish the very next week, as Driskel broke his ankle throwing what turned out to be a pick six by Devaun Swafford of Tennessee- the last pass he’s thrown for Florida.
We all know what happened the rest of the year, and I’m not gong to relive it. It was a nightmare. But nobody wanted to wake up more from it than Jeff Driskel.
The kid with the big smile and humble attitude from Oviedo has a lot to prove, and he knows it. If he had his choice, he’d play his football game, shower, get dressed, eat and then go hunting with his friends. He’s the inverse of Johnny Manziel in the attention seeking department. But he knows he has a job to do in 2014, and he also knows that there’s a ton of attention that comes with that job.
He’s got the majority of Gator Nation on his side. The final seven games of last year made a lot of Florida fans appreciate what they had in him, and the old adage about “you can’t appreciate what you have until you don’t have it” was proven frighteningly accurate. As always, there will be criticism directed his way, both from Florida fans and from rival fans. But if anybody knows how to respond to criticism, it’s Driskel.
He is, after all, the guy who led Florida into Kyle Field and ruined Texas A&M’s welcome to the SEC by out performing eventual Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel- a week after winning the job to the dismay of a portion of his own fans. He’s also the guy who led Florida into Tallahassee and outdueled EJ Manuel, a first round draft pick, and his 10th ranked Seminoles. Texas A&M and FSU are two of the most hostile environments in the country, and Driskel led the Gators to huge victories over both those teams in their home stadiums. That’s got to count for something, right?
But those wins aren’t what first come to mind when somebody yells out the words “JEFF DRISKEL”. Instead, people initially think of his two bad decisions that turned into picks against Miami, the sack he took and the ensuing fumble he lost that essentially lost the game against the Canes, and his broken ankle/pick-six against Tennessee. Those are the most recent images Gator fans have of him in live game action.
And the only way to rid Florida fans of the sour taste he left in the collective mouth of Gator Nation is with a strong 2014 season.
That’s the name of the game for Jeff Driskel in 2014. Just like all those teams around the globe that fall short of expectations or fall victim to a particularly truculent injury bug, Driskel is going out to redeem himself this year. He’s dealt with criticism his whole life, and he knows that he’s still on the receiving end of some right now. He hasn’t fulfilled the gaudy expectations set for him by highly optimistic Gator fans who wanted him to replace Tim Tebow, and maybe he never will. But he does know what he’s capable of doing. He knows he’s talented, he knows he’s got a big arm, he knows he’s fast, and he knows he’s generally a very smart QB.
A new offensive coordinator and an offense more suited to his style should help him. But after being knocked down several times, both literally and figuratively, he’s ready to accept the challenge. He’s ready to lead the new look Gator offense. He’s ready to silence that criticism and revive his career.
He’s ready to win.