Aside from embattled head coach Will Muschamp, Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel remains the most polarizing figure in Gainesville.
xIs he that good? Can he stay healthy?
How much credit does he deserve for UF’s surprising 11-win season in 2012?
Gator fans’ love-hate relationship with their redshirt junior quarterback runs deep, but even seesawing opinions can’t deny a single truth about Florida’s 2014 campaign: Driskel is UF’s best hope for a major rebound season.
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“If we stay healthy at the quarterback position, we’re going to win a bunch of games,” said Muschamp, who boldly embraced major expectations this offseason.
“This is the most complete team we’ve had since I’ve been here.”
The Gators nosedived in 2013, torpedoed by a rash of injuries and a third consecutive offense ranked in the bottom 20 nationally.
Florida’s humiliating 4-8 season was punctuated by an astounding home defeat to Georgia Southern. The Gators ended the year on a seven-game skid.
It was grim, but Driskel wasn’t present for much of the carnage.
Last season was poised to be Driskel’s breakout campaign. It was his turn. It was his team.
And then suddenly, it wasn’t.
Before Driskel ever threw a pass in training camp, the 6-4, 230-pounder was sidelined with an emergency appendectomy. Six weeks later, his final throw of 2013 went for a pick-six as he broke his right fibula.
Never questioned for his toughness, Driskel limped off the field with a shattered leg, collapsing once he reached the sideline.
His bone was crushed, and so was Florida’s season.
“There was still some adrenaline going,” he said, looking back. “I was just being a competitor. I didn’t want to get carted off the field after a pick-six. I don’t know. It was just in the moment. I wasn’t trying to be a hero out there.”
Now healthy, confident and motivated, he is the hero the Gators need.
Florida returns a young and hungry defense, but inexperience in the secondary could prove troublesome. Special teams remain a huge question mark, and health, namely along the offensive line, is paramount to the team’s potential success.
The Gators are littered with blue-chippers, but development has long been the issue and Driskel is Florida’s ultimate paradigm.
With the addition of new coordinator Kurt Roper, there’s confidence he can finally showcase his true talents and lead the unit — and team — out of the gutter.
“I’ve never been on a team as stacked as this offense,” starting left tackle D.J. Humphries said.
“Stacked all the way through receivers. Stacked all the running backs, quarterback, backfield full, depth on the O-line. I have never been a part of something where we’re stacked everywhere. I’m ready to see what it’s going to do against some other colors.”
So is everyone else.
Driskel is no longer a square peg in a round hole, positioned to excel in Roper’s spread scheme.
“This is what he was recruited to do at Florida,” Muschamp said.
In 2011, former Gators coach Urban Meyer signed Driskel — then the No. 1 dual-threat quarterback recruit in the country — as the next replacement for Tim Tebow.
But Meyer left before ever coaching the Hagerty High standout, and Muschamp inherited the prep star and brought in a physical pro-style offense.
First Charlie Weis. Then Brent Pease.
Driskel, now in his third system in four years, underwhelmed in a confined offense, battling durability, confidence and consistency issues.
Although he nearly piloted Florida to the national title game two years ago, his main job was to not mess things up.
“Quarterbacks definitely get way too much credit when we win, but you get way too much blame when things don’t go right,” Drisklel said last offseason. “It comes with it. You’ve got to know it’s coming and accept it.”
But with failed expectations and unimpressive stats, the glory has rarely come.
Despite NFL size and arm strength, Driskel has tossed multiple touchdowns just twice in his career. He has eclipsed more than 219 yards in the air only once.
Muschamp is convinced UF’s overhauled offense is tailor-made for Driskel’s skill-set and the quarterback’s best is yet to come.
Roper, the man in charge of implementing the new attack, agreed.
“The first thing that jumps out to you about Jeff is a guy that physically has the skills to be a successful quarterback in the SEC,” he said. “That’s really where it starts. Is the guy physically capable of getting it done? And his size, his athleticism, his arm strength, those things are really, really good. He’s got the ability to do that. … It’s not his first rodeo.”
Driskel and Muschamp are linked at the hip, and the quarterback’s performance this fall will likely determine whether Muschamp survives a do-or-die season.
But for the first time in his career, Driskel is surrounded by a slew of playmakers.
The addition of transfer tight end Jake McGee, along with a dozen guys competing for playing time at tailback and receiver, perhaps offer him a final chance at proving doubters wrong.
“All the components are there,” Muschamp said. “We need to go do it now.”
Added Driskel: “Last year happened. We’re not going to shy away from it. But it’s a new season, and we’re just worried about getting better. … Our goal is to get to Atlanta. It’s always been our goal here. It’s going to take a lot, but we have the players to do so. We just have to put it all together.”
It starts with him.