University of Florida

Florida Gators QB Jeff Driskel ready to face Tennessee amid avalanche of criticism

Florida Gators QB Jeff Driskel calls a signal during a game against Eastern Michigan at Ben Hill Stadium on Sept. 6, 2014 in Gainesville, Florida.
Florida Gators QB Jeff Driskel calls a signal during a game against Eastern Michigan at Ben Hill Stadium on Sept. 6, 2014 in Gainesville, Florida. Getty Images

Jeff Driskel was tarred and feathered on social media and lambasted by commentators on CBS, ESPN and other networks.

Florida’s redshirt junior quarterback took a beating – literally and figuratively – during the worst performance of his career in a blowout loss at No. 2 Alabama on Sept. 20.

Now, UF’s signal-caller is ready to move forward against Tennessee this weekend (noon, SEC Network).

“It’s a new week,” Driskel said, smiling. “Thank goodness, it’s a new week.”

Driskel, a divisive subject for Gator Nation following several uneven seasons, delivered a brutal performance in Florida’s 42-21 loss to Alabama, finishing 9 of 28 for 93 yards and three turnovers.

Driskel admitted to pressing and forcing throws as the Gators struggled on third down (2 of 13) and the offense’s timing was out of sync. Florida’s wideouts dropped several passes, too, but the postgame fury was aimed mainly at Driskel.

Gators legend Emmitt Smith even derided Driskel on Twitter and called for his benching.

Smith later apologized, but the deed was done.

“There’s a lot out there so you can’t really shield yourself from all of it,” Driskel said. “That’s just part of playing quarterback here [at Florida]. I’ve never been one where that stuff gets to me, whether people are saying you’re the best or people are saying you’re the worst. So you’ve just got to be even-keeled and keep moving forward. But there’s a lot out there, so you can’t really shield yourself from all of it. I’m grown. I can handle it.”

Driskel couldn’t even avoid criticism during UF’s bye week, as photos surfaced of him tailgating at FAU, where his younger brother, Jason, is a backup quarterback for the Owls.

“People can try to make a big deal about anything,” Driskel said. “That’s not one.”

But a big deal has been made of Florida’s struggles in the passing game, and Driskel’s continued inconsistencies and enigmatic play.

Decision-making, accuracy and pocket awareness remain an issue for the third-year starter.

“We’ve got to be more productive in the passing game,” UF offensive coordinator Kurt Roper said. “I think that’s the biggest issue [with the offense’s struggles]. Even in that game we had some production in the run game. We’ve got to get more productive in the pass game.”

Roper continued: “We have 100 percent confidence in Jeff right now, and he’s the guy we feel like we’re going to win football games with.”

Florida coach Will Muschamp – embroiled in swirling negativity alongside the team’s maligned quarterback – has essentially tied his fate to Driskel, as calls for talented freshman Treon Harris have seemingly fallen on deaf ears.

“Be careful what you ask when you want to be the quarterback at Florida,” Muschamp quipped. “That’s part of it. Jeff understands that. I don’t know if physically or mentally there’s any tougher kid that I’ve been around. He takes the heat and understands that comes with the territory. He’ll make the Gator Nation proud he’s their quarterback. I know the majority are – that’s the frustrating part, that you’ve got to listen to the negativity of a small few. But that’s just part of it.”

Roper and Muschamp praised Harris’ future potential but said the former Booker T. Washington standout is not getting reps with the first-team offense.

According to the staff, Harris simply isn’t ready to compete for the starting job.

“Treon’s understanding is not where it needs to be,” Roper said. “That’s not because he doesn’t work hard at it or he’s not getting reps. It’s just simply age and number of repetitions and practices he’s had.”

Florida faces a must-win scenario in Knoxville on Saturday, but a raucous Neyland Stadium actually marks the scene of Driskel’s best collegiate performance. In 2012, Driskel rallied the Gators with 24 unanswered points after halftime in a 37-20 win. The quarterback was 14 of 20 for 219 yards, two touchdowns and 81 yards on the ground.

Gator Nation hopes a repeat performance is in store.

“Fans have the right to overreact, but we’re not panicking here,” Driskel said.

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