Florida Gators: Jacoby Brissett
He was trying to be studious last season and watch extra film on his own to become better at pre-snap reads and pass-protection adjustments, but he found confusion instead of clarity. That’s when he’d call offensive coordinator Brent Pease.
"At times I didn’t really know what I was looking at or what I should be looking at," Driskel said. "There were times where I was confused as to why this guy came free on a pressure or why I should have gone to another guy rather than this guy."
Not this season. Not knowing the protection adjustments, where to go with the ball, or recognizing a blitz will be unacceptable mistakes for Driskel. The 6-foot-4, 237-pound junior knows he can’t make them this season, or Florida’s offense won’t be any better than the unit that ranked No. 103 nationally in 2012.
"I just think I’m a lot more comfortable," Driskel said. "I know where to throw the ball and I know where to throw the ball in certain situations and we’re a lot better at timing. I’m getting the ball out before they’re breaking rather than waiting for them to break to throw the ball. That’s a big difference in catching the ball and getting tackled or catching the ball and turning it up field.
"I feel like I have [gotten much better]. I’m excited for the first game to really show it off."
Florida’s season depends on Driskel’s transition from a player whose main role was to take care of the ball and not put the Gators in bad situations into a quarterback who can win games. Driskel threw for 1,646 yards -- the fewest by a Florida starter since Kyle Morris threw for 1,098 yards in 1989 -- and 12 touchdowns last season, and the passing offense was No. 114 nationally. Four of the six teams that ranked below the Gators run the option.
With running back Matt Jones’ return from a viral infection still uncertain, Driskel has to be able to put the offense on his shoulders, and Pease said he has seen encouraging signs. Part of that is because Driskel’s the clear-cut starter and has been in the offensive system for a year.
"He’s comfortable with that and he knows the expectations," Pease said. "Some bullets have flown at him before. I think he’s probably a little more comfortable not having the situation of the controversy, so to speak."
Pease said Driskel is more at ease in the pocket and has done a good job of recognizing blitzes and changing protections, which were two of his biggest issues last season. But perhaps the biggest leap Driskel has made is in his leadership. If a player is more comfortable with his role and confident that he knows everything he needs to know, he’s naturally going to play better.
"Just hearing [Driskel] in the weight room stepping up and saying things to teammates and making teammates accountable, making himself more accountable to the situation of what the goals for this team are," Pease said. "It’s to win the SEC. He’s not afraid to step up and say something. He’s demonstrated that. I think when you get a kid who becomes vocalized in a good way and demonstrates that and talks to his teammates and challenges and encourages them, you know he’s taken the next step because he’s earned some respect."
Driskel knows he’ll earn even more if the passing offense produces significantly more than the 146.3 yards per game it did last season. It should improve, now that he knows what he’s watching on film, he said.
"We’re going to have to throw the ball more and we’ll have to be more efficient throwing the ball," Driskel said. "We’re going to have to hit more big plays. We can’t run the ball 50 times a game like we did last year at points.
"We’re still going to run the ball effectively and we have an offensive line that loves running the ball and we have explosive backs. That’s still going to be a big part of our game, but we do have to make more plays throwing the ball, which I think we’ll do."
He’s still focused and driven, but he comes across as much more confident and definitely more relaxed, which was obvious when he hammed it up with a significantly shorter member of the media just before doing a video shoot.
That’s an indication that Driskel is much more at ease with who he is and more comfortable and confident in his knowledge and abilities as the Gators’ starting quarterback.
He should be a better player in 2013, someone capable of putting the team on his shoulders and winning a game instead of being a caretaker whose main directive was to not turn the ball over.
“It’s his football team,” UF coach Will Muschamp said. “[Driskel] attacked the offseason the way you’re supposed to as far as his mental preparation, watching film. He understands what we’re doing offensively much better than a year ago, which is expected.”
The main reason for Driskel’s improvement is that he’s no longer fighting for the job. He’s not competing with Jacoby Brissett, who left for N.C. State after the season ended, or worried that a couple of poor drives or games would get him benched.
The biggest benefit of that situation is that he’s essentially getting twice as many practice reps, twice as much time in the film room, and twice as much individual work with Pease. He’s taking all of the first-team snaps instead of sharing them. He’s breaking down every play in the film room. He’s explaining every protection and adjustment and getting nearly all of the feedback.
That showed during the spring, Muschamp said.
“When the game slows down a little bit, you get a little more mental quickness of where to take the ball down the field, first progression read to the second, and understanding where the pressure may come from,” Muschamp said. “That’s part of the growing process of a young quarterback.”
Driskel said he’s gaining a much better rapport with the receivers, which was something that he wasn’t able to do last season because there was always some awkwardness between the quarterbacks and receivers because of the competition between Driskel and Brissett.
“When there’s a competition, you know, some guys are going to -- not be on one side or the other -- but there’s not the as close of a bond because no one wants to step on anyone’s toes and no one wants to get on someone’s bad side,” Driskel said. “When there’s one set quarterback I think everyone responds well to it and everyone kind of is looking at the same person and getting on the same page with one person instead of doing it with two.”
Driskel still has a lot on which to improve, specifically mastering the pass protections and knowing which adjustments to make and when and getting rid of the ball quicker to avoid sacks.
But he appears to be on his way to becoming the kind of quarterback he was projected to be when he came out of Oviedo (Fla.) Hagerty High School in 2011 -- which should keep the Gators in contention for an Eastern Division title.
He was a five-star prospect coming out of high school, he’s the starting quarterback at a major SEC university and he has the cheerleader girlfriend.
Life seems pretty sweet, but that hasn’t exactly been the case.
Despite Florida going an unexpected 11-2 with its first BCS bowl experience since 2009, Driskel received more backlash than high fives during his first season as the Gators’ starter, with schizophrenic play that made him arguably the league’s most perplexing player.
“When you’re a quarterback at a big university, you’re going to get too much credit when you play well and you’re going to get a lot of scrutiny when you don’t play well,” Driskel told ESPN.com in a phone interview earlier this week. “It comes with it, and you can’t let that bother you.”
Driskel says he didn’t let the negativity rattle him, but the internal pressure he put on himself -- thanks to the constant battle with classmate Jacoby Brissett -- did. Driskel said he spent the better part of 2012 looking over his shoulder, waiting for Brissett to take that critical step past him.
“You make a bad play, like throwing an interception in practice, you’re definitely thinking about that,” Driskel said.
Now, Brissett has taken his game to NC State, and as the Gators dive into spring practice, Driskel is no longer feeling the heat of competition. He finally feels like he’s the guy and can take the next steps in his development as a starter.
“It’s definitely my team, and I have to take over and be that leader,” he said.
“Now, I can play free and faster and not have to worry about making mistakes and worry more about making good plays.”
In order to make those plays, Driskel has realized that he has to take off-field work more seriously.
Spotlight: Quarterback Jeff Driskel, 6-foot-4, 237 pounds, rising junior.
2012 summary: Driskel beat out Jacoby Brissett for the starting quarterback job after the two battled all spring and preseason. Driskel finished the season completing 63.7 percent of his passes and threw for 1,646 yards. He passed for 12 touchdowns and had five interceptions. Driskel was also second on the team in rushing with 413 yards and added four rushing touchdowns.
The skinny: It goes without saying that Florida has to add some pop to its passing game, and much of that centers around Driskel growing as a passer. He certainly has the arm strength and is plenty athletic. The big thing this spring and offseason will be improving his timing and chemistry with his receivers and learning to trust the people around him. That includes his offensive line, which wasn't the best when it came to pass protection a year ago. Spreading the ball around will also be important. There were times last season when Driskel would lock onto his first target and didn't see the entire field well enough. He's sure to grow in those areas after playing and starting an entire season in the SEC, and it will also help being with offensive coordinator Brent Pease for a second straight year. More than anything else, Driskel needs to take command of the Florida offense and prove that he can be the kind of quarterback who can beat teams throwing the ball if that's what the situation calls for. With Brissett transferring out, the Gators don't have a lot of options behind him at quarterback, so it's paramount that he take a big step this spring and offseason. Driskel is as tough as they come and delivered in several key situations last season. He's going to need more help from his receivers, but the Gators will need a more consistent passing game, period, in 2013 if they're going to contend for the SEC championship.
Jacoby Brissett’s decision to transfer leaves Florida with zero experience behind Driskel. Tyler Murphy, who will be a redshirt junior next season, has appeared in three games in his career in a mop-up role and has never thrown a pass. Skyler Mornhinweg will be a redshirt freshman in 2013.
The other quarterback on the roster is expected to be Max Staver, a 6-foot-6, 238-pound four-star recruit from Brentwood, Tenn./Brentwood Academy who has pledged to sign with Florida next month.
That means the Gators have virtually no options if Driskel doesn’t get better after his first season as a starter. The 6-4, 237-pound junior-to-be was solid in 2012, completing 63.7 percent of his passes for 1,646 yards with 12 touchdowns and five interceptions. But he struggled with holding on to the ball too long, staring down his receivers and making progressions.
Those are things with which nearly every young quarterback struggles, so it shouldn’t be alarming that Driskel did. Plus, he didn’t get a ton of help. The offensive line was inconsistent in pass protection, and the receivers -- other than TE Jordan Reed (team-high 45 catches), who announced he’s leaving early for the NFL -- are below-average.
Most of the time leading up to Florida's bout with Louisville in the Allstate Sugar Bowl involved conversations about how good the Gators could be in 2013. The overwhelming thought from pretty much every side of the college football spectrum was that the Gators would handle a talented, yet, overmatched Louisville team and then wait to see how high they would rise in next year's preseason polls.
With a chunk of talent returning on defense and an offense that just had to get better, Florida was looking at being a legitimate national title contender in 2013.
From there, Florida panicked offensively (star running back Mike Gillislee ran the ball just nine times), and Driskel's composure and pass attempts became harder and harder to watch.
The offense rarely wowed in 2012, but during its first appearence in 2013, with a month of work, it totally collapsed, leaving the Gators with a load of question marks entering spring practice.
That Gators always found a way to bounce back with its mediocre offensive attack, but had no answers against the Cardinals. Now, it really is back to the drawing board for Will Muschamp and offensive coordinator Brent Pease.
But what does Florida do? Backup quarterback Jacoby Brissett is still unsure if he'll return, but if he leaves, players have to have more confidence in Driskel than they had this fall. The rhythm and timing has to improve or this offense isn't going anywhere.
Wednesday, 8:30 p.m. ET
Mercedes-Benz Sugar Bowl, New Orleans
Gators to watch
QB Jeff Driskel: The 6-foot-4, 237-pound sophomore played his best game of the season in the regular-season finale against Florida State. Even though he was still bothered by an ankle injury, Driskel remained composed -- despite being sacked four times and harassed by a pair of NFL defensive ends -- and hurt the Seminoles on rollout passes. It’ll be interesting to see how much he has benefitted from the 15 bowl practices in which he didn’t have to evenly split reps with Jacoby Brissett. A lot of players make significant jumps during the bowl practices, as CB Loucheiz Purifoy did last season. Is Driskel next?
DT Sharrif Floyd: This might be Floyd’s final game with the Gators because the 6-3, 303-pound junior is considering leaving early for the NFL. Floyd has been a disruptive force all season, with 11 tackles for loss, a sack, and six quarterback hurries (one shy of the team lead). He’ll be matched up against a pair of sophomore guards, John Miller and Jake Smith. The Cardinals average just 127.1 yards per game rushing and are without RB Senorise Perry, who tore his right ACL. He averaged 5.2 yards per carry and still leads the team with 11 rushing touchdowns. Floyd will be a big part of the Gators’ plan to make the Cardinals one-dimensional.
S Matt Elam: Elam is another player who could be appearing in his last game for Florida. The 5-10, 202-pound junior also is considering leaving early for the NFL after putting together an All-American season (65 tackles, four interceptions). He’s a rarity in that he can play safety but also has the one-on-one coverage skills to line up at nickel back. He made perhaps the biggest play of the season when he stripped LSU WR Odell Beckham after a 56-yard gain. The Gators went on to score a game-clinching touchdown and beat the Tigers.
Cardinals to watch
QB Teddy Bridgewater: The 6-foot-3, 220-pound sophomore ended the regular season ranked eighth nationally in pass efficiency. He was named the Big East’s Offensive Player of the Year after throwing for 3,452 yards and 25 touchdowns. He was fantastic in the regular-season finale against Rutgers, when he came off the bench and rallied the Cardinals to a 20-17 victory to win the Big East title in one of the gutsiest performances of the season. Bridgewater had a broken left wrist and a severely sprained left ankle but he still managed to complete 20 of 28 passes for 263 yards and two touchdowns.
CB Adrian Bushell: Bushell transferred from Florida after the 2009 season, spent a year at a junior college, and enrolled at Louisville just before the Cardinals started practices in 2011. It turned out to be a good move for the 5-11, 184-pounder from DeSoto, Texas, and the Cardinals. Bushell is a two-time first-team All-Big East selection and had a team-high 11 pass breakups, three fumble recoveries, and an interception to go along with 59 tackles.
WR DeVante Parker: Parker has 38 catches for 712 yards and nine touchdowns this season. That’s a team-high 18.7 yards per catch. The 6-3, 204-pound sophomore is a touchdown machine. He has 15 touchdown catches on only 56 career receptions, which means he’s averaging a touchdown every 3.7 receptions. He’s also a big-play machine, because his 15 touchdown catches are averaging 29.5 yards.
Florida RB Mike Gillislee vs. Louisville LB Preston Brown
Expect a heavy dose of Gillislee today, especially with the state of the Cardinals’ rush defense. Louisville is giving up an average of 151.1 yards per game rushing and opponents have rushed for at least 196 yards in five of the past eight games. The 6-0, 257-pound Brown, who anchors the middle and leads the team with 96 tackles, is averaging 11.3 tackles in his last six games. Gillislee, a first-team All-SEC selection, has rushed for 1,104 yards and 10 touchdowns to become the first UF back to surpass 1,000 yards since 2004. Gillislee is coming off his best performance: 140 yards and two TDs against Florida State, which had the nation’s No. 1 rush defense.
By the numbers
2 -- Number of victories Louisville has posted over top-five teams. The Cardinals beat No. 3 West Virginia in 2006 and No. 4 Florida State in 2002.
3 -- Number of victories for Florida in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. The Gators are 3-5, with victories over West Virginia (1994), Florida State (1997) and Cincinnati (2010).
12.9 -- Number of points per game Florida is allowing. It’s the fewest allowed in a season since 1964 (9.8).
We continue with No. 4: Block party
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Was Florida’s shot at possibly playing for a national championship going to be squashed?
Not by an SEC opponent, but by Louisiana-Lafayette?
At Florida Field?
That decision, plus three UF timeouts and Loucheiz Purifoy’s long right arm, kept the Gators alive.
After gaining only 7 yards in three plays, ULL lined up to punt with 13 seconds remaining. Purifoy came off the left side of the formation unblocked, got his hand on Baer’s punt, and Jelani Jenkins caught the ball and returned it 36 yards for a touchdown with just two seconds remaining.
"We certainly make it interesting," UF coach Will Muschamp said after the game. "It’s a football team that’s finding ways to win games."
The Gators shouldn’t have even been in that position though. UF had outscored ULL 206-35 in four previous meetings with the Ragin’ Cajuns, including a pair of shutouts. Even with backup QB Jacoby Brissett playing in the fourth quarter because of an ankle injury to starter Jeff Driskel, the Gators should have had an easy victory.
Instead, the offense managed just 162 yards passing and 311 total yards against a ULL defense that was giving up 294.6 yards per game passing and 433.2 yards per game in total offense, stats which ranked 114th and 89th in the nation, respectively.
ULL rallied from a 10-point deficit to take a 20-13 lead -- one touchdown came on a blocked punt return -- before Brissett led the Gators on a game-tying drive that ended with a 3-yard touchdown pass to Quinton Dunbar with less than two minutes to play.
Then came Purifoy’s block, which turned out to be one of the biggest plays of the season. The Gators beat Jacksonville State the following week and then went on the road and beat Florida State to stay alive in the national championship race until Notre Dame's victory over USC hours after UF’s victory over FSU.
It also was instrumental in UF earning an at-large bid to the Allstate Sugar Bowl instead of spending New Year’s Day in the Capital One or Outback bowls.
QB Jeff Driskel
140-216-3, 1,471 yards, 11 TDs; 108-409 yards, 4 TDs
The good: Driskel wasn’t spectacular, but he was efficient and -- with the exception of the Georgia game -- didn’t make many mistakes. He won the job because of his mobility and he ended up as the Gators’ second-leading rusher and had a big game against Vanderbilt on the ground (177 yards and three TDs). Driskel improved on early struggles with holding onto the ball too long and learned to throw the ball away instead of trying to scramble and losing yards.
The bad: Driskel had the same problem that all young quarterbacks have: locking onto a receiver and failing to read the field. There were times when he didn’t see open receivers in the middle of the field. He also needs to work on getting the ball out quicker in rhythm, especially on the short, timing throws. His pocket awareness needs to improve as well.
Crystal ball: Offensive coordinator Brent Pease took the shackles off the offense against Florida State and should do the same against Louisville. That means more chances for Driskel to make plays in the passing game, which is something the Gators haven’t done much. That should give Driskel some momentum heading into the 2013 season. He’s the unquestioned starter, and a full offseason of first-team reps should be a huge benefit. If the Gators are able to add some talent at receiver, the passing offense should be a weapon and not a liability.
Here's five storylines for the game:
1. How effective will Jeff Driskel be? Driskel will start against Florida State and UF coach Will Muschamp said the sophomore looked fine during practices, but that could be a little gamesmanship. Driskel’s sprained right ankle might not be 100 percent and that would have a huge impact on how effective he can be against the Seminoles. His mobility is a key part of the offense, and not just because of the designed quarterback runs or the read option. The pass protection has been inconsistent and Driskel has been able to keep plays alive by scrambling, either to run or to pass. If he’s got limited mobility, that pretty much paints a target on his back for FSU’s pass rushers -- and makes it almost impossible for the Gators to win the game.
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- No. 4 Florida and No. 10 Florida State meet Saturday in Tallahassee, Fla. The Seminoles (10-1) have won two in a row in the series, after the Gators (10-1) won six in a row.
NoleNation’s Corey Dowlar and David Hale and GatorNation’s Michael DiRocco and Derek Tyson break down this weekend's game in a roundtable discussion:
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GatorNation will tell you every week. It’s not just a list of MVP candidates, but a compilation of the players who are making the biggest difference each week.
Here’s this week’s top 10 (last week’s rankings in parentheses):
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But he is sure he’ll be much more ready to do so than he was last season.
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Here are the good and bad from the 23-0 victory over Jacksonville State:
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The Early Offer: March 12
Final Washington State 45 Colorado State 48 Final 20 Fresno State 20 25 USC 45 Final Buffalo 24 San Diego State 49 Final Tulane 21 Louisiana-Lafayette 24
Final Pittsburgh 30 Bowling Green 27 Final Utah State 21 23 Northern Illinois 14
Final Marshall 31 Maryland 20 Final Syracuse 21 Minnesota 17 Final Brigham Young 16 Washington 31
Final Rutgers 16 Notre Dame 29 Final Cincinnati 17 North Carolina 39 Final Miami (FL) 9 18 Louisville 36 Final Michigan 14 Kansas State 31
Final Middle Tennessee 6 Navy 24 Final Ole Miss 25 Georgia Tech 17 Final 10 Oregon 30 Texas 7 Final 14 Arizona State 23 Texas Tech 37
Final Arizona 42 Boston College 19 Final Virginia Tech 12 17 UCLA 42 Final Rice 7 Mississippi State 44 Final 24 Duke 48 21 Texas A&M 52
Final Nebraska 24 22 Georgia 19 Final UNLV 14 North Texas 36 Final Iowa 14 16 LSU 21 Final 19 Wisconsin 24 9 South Carolina 34 Final 5 Stanford 20 4 Michigan State 24 Final 15 UCF 52 6 Baylor 42
Final 13 Oklahoma State 31 8 Missouri 41 Final 12 Clemson 40 7 Ohio State 35