GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Regardless of whether he leads the Gators to a national championship one day or never plays another game, few players in Florida football history – if any at all – can say they faced a more intense introduction than Jacoby Brissett.
Brissett will always remember Oct. 8, 2011.
Florida at No. 1-ranked LSU. Gators starting quarterback John Brantley on the sideline wearing a protective boot protecting his injured ankle. More than 93,000 people in Death Valley – and not many of them wanting to see you do well.
Was Brissett, a few months out of Palm Beach Dwyer High and inactive in the season’s first five games, rattled with nerves that day in Baton Rouge?
“No, far from it. I was excited more than anything to be able to say that in my first game I played against the No. 1 team in the country, LSU, at Death Valley,’’ Brissett said with a big grin recently. “Not a lot of people can say that as a (true) freshman.
“At the beginning of the game I can tell you it was just a relief that I was on the field, because you can ask anybody, I was thinking about asking the coaches to redshirt me. Just being out there it was like, ‘Now is my time.’ After the game, I made my mistakes, but I felt like I grew too. I felt like I progressed.”
Brissett was a late addition to Florida’s 2011 recruiting haul, swayed by former offensive coordinator Charlie Weis to join head coach Will Muschamp’s inaugural signing class.
The Gators already had true freshman Jeff Driskel on campus. Driskel was the top-ranked prep quarterback in the country according to many recruiting analysts coming out of Hagerty High in Oviedo.
Brissett was heavily targeted by Miami and many considered the Gators a distant second. Brissett, also a talented prep basketball player, had other ideas.
He liked that Driskel was an early enrollee and imagined a competitive battle to one day replace Brantley.
“You are going up against the No. 1 quarterback in the country,’’ Brissett said. “You have an opportunity to beat him out and show everybody you are better than him. That’s what I grew up trying to do – prove that I’m better than anybody.
“This was an opportunity and I took it.”
While Driskel opened last season as Brantley’s back-up, Brissett was able to close the gap and earn the start at LSU a week after both Brantley and Driskel suffered ankle injuries in a home loss to Alabama.
He started the next game, too, at Auburn, before giving way to Driskel in the second half as the Gators struggled to move the ball.
As the Gators open spring practice, Brissett and Driskel remain in a close competition to determine who will be the Gators’ starting quarterback come fall.
“We have a quarterback battle going into the spring,’’ Muschamp said Tuesday. “Jeff and Jacoby will split reps and we’ll name a starter when we’re ready. Whether that’s spring, summer, fall camp, I don’t know.”
Both Muschamp and new offensive coordinator Brent Pease would like one to emerge as the clear-cut frontrunner, but both added that if the Gators need to, they will play both.
“Right now they’re the guys in the position that they were kind at last year,’’ Pease said. “They’re the guys that can lead the team.”
Pease, also the quarterbacks coach, was not someone Brissett was familiar with until he heard about his hiring. He quickly crammed to learn as much about his new coach that he could.
Brissett studied a lot of film of Pease’s Boise State offense from last season as he went through another introductory process that he wasn’t expecting following Weis’ surprise departure to become head coach at Kansas.
“The day it happened, Coach Muschamp called me up and just told me to be positive about the situation,’’ Brissett said. “He told me that he knew that it would probably affect me the most out of any player on the team. So he wanted to just touch base with me and tell me about the whole situation.”
Once Brissett adjusted to the coaching change, he quickly turned his focus back to the competition with Driskel. In eight games last season, Brissett completed 18 of 39 passes for 206 yards, two touchdowns and four interceptions.
Brissett (6-foot-3, 229 pounds) and Driskel (6-4, 232) have similar skill-sets at this point in their young careers. Brissett showed a more polished pocket presence at times last season, while Driskel is considered perhaps a better play-maker on the run.
Both obviously are still learning and Brissett, in the same way he was excited about the challenge at LSU – he finished 8 of 14 for 94 yards, a touchdown and one interception in Florida’s 41-11 loss – is ready for an opportunity to earn the starting job full-time in his second season and developing into a true leader.
“I feel as a quarterback that has to be the role you play,’’ he said. “You have to be the person in the fourth quarter that everybody is looking at and you’re the person who feels like it’s just the first quarter. As a quarterback, that’s what me and all the other guys have to instill in one another. It’s a different mentality you’ve got to bring in every day.”
If there is one advantage Brissett has, it’s that he did start two games last season while Driskel’s five appearances came off the bench.
While Brissett is much more comfortable in Year 2 – “I had no clue about anything [the first week of camp]. I remember just messing up every drill” – he expects to see a much-improved Driskel as well. He said that should make this spring nearly as fun as that start at LSU.
“I feel like it will be a good competition,’’ he said. “It’s going to be something that will boost the team up just to see how both of us progress. He is a great quarterback. It’s just going to be a fight, I know that. That’s what’s keeping me going.”