Jeff Driskel was mercifully benched in Florida’s 10-9 win over Tennessee, but the Gators’ much-maligned quarterback regained his starting job without ever practicing against true freshman Treon Harris.
It was a tumultuous and crazy week for the Gator Nation.
Driskel’s days as Florida’s starter appeared numbered after coach Will Muschamp inserted Harris in a do-or-die situation against the Volunteers. Trailing 9-0 at the start of the fourth quarter, Harris rallied the Gators with two scoring drives and was poised to start Saturday (7:30 p.m., SEC Network) against LSU (4-2, 0-2 SEC).
Instead, the former Miami Booker T. Washington standout was suspended indefinitely Monday morning in connection to an alleged sexual assault against a female student.
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Harris was reinstated Friday but will not play against LSU.
Suddenly, Driskel is thrust back into the driver’s seat as Florida’s quarterback, and the Gators (3-1, 2-1 SEC) must rally behind their beleaguered third-year starter if they want to stay in the Eastern Division hunt.
“Jeff’s a tough young man,” Muschamp said. “He’s resilient. I met with him Sunday, and I talked to him after the game. Talked to him again Monday. He understands he needs to play better.”
Driskel has faltered in two straight games, throwing five interceptions and just 152 yards (20-for-51) in consecutive woeful performances against SEC foes.
The veteran signal caller leads the conference in interceptions (6), is next-to-last in completion percentage (54.7 percent), is last in yards per attempt (5.0) and holds the league’s worst quarterback rating (99.92).
Still, Muschamp has tried to accentuate the positives with Driskel, showing the quarterback film of his successes at Florida since taking over the position in 2012.
“We’ve taken a lot of the positive things we’ve done within his career here at the University of Florida — and there’s been a lot,” Muschamp said. “Jeff’s played in some big games. Played in a big game against LSU here two years ago and won and made some plays that helped us.”
While restoring Driskel’s confidence is key, offensive coordinator Kurt Roper said, “I have never seen him waver.”
“He’s a guy that has the right look in his eye. He is confident,” Roper said. “Obviously, it’s a challenge when you don’t have the success in a game or in a couple of games that you want to have. The first thing that you do is you start looking at yourself first, and he’s that kind of guy.”
But Florida’s continued offensive issues aren’t all Driskel’s fault, something Muschamp was quick to note when asked about the team’s confidence in a quarterback that was just benched.
“Take ownership in your job,” Muschamp said he told the rest of the offense.
“The passing game takes a lot of components to work well. … When you go down to a tipped-ball interception, we have an A-gap blitz, which the running back doesn’t pick up. Jeff’s got to force the ball a little bit quicker than he would like to, and we have a receiver coming across the middle that is open, it’s off his hands, probably should have caught the ball, and it’s an interception, so we’re all going to blame that on Jeff Driskel. That’s not all Jeff Driskel’s fault. We took about 15 plays from the game and illustrated to our players, and not to defend Jeff, but to defend the quarterback position. People around them need to execute better and take ownership in what they need to do better.”
Muschamp credited UF’s wideouts with 15 drops, saying guys like Demarcus Robinson and Quinton Dunbar need to step up.
“You want to talk about confidence and timing, and getting things going — those are things we’ve addressed within the ownership in the position,” he said. “Take ownership in your play and how you play and how you perform instead of point a finger at somebody else.”
With no viable option behind Driskel, the Gators are likely to lean on their solid rushing attack, as the Tigers rank No.90 in the nation in rush defense.
Asked how Florida’s fanbase will react to Driskel this weekend, Roper said, “The biggest thing for Jeff is to try to focus on the things that he can control.”
He continued: “It’s obviously not an easy situation to have struggles. It’s not easy. Jeff understands his No.1 responsibility is to help us go win a football game. … I fully expect Jeff to play really well.”