GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Being the center of attention is not necessarily something Jeff Driskel seeks, but he understands that there is no escaping it when you are in his cleats.
It’s been that way for a few years now for Driskel, a football and baseball standout at Oviedo’s Hagerty High before enrolling at UF last spring.
By the time he started his senior season at Hagerty, he was considered the top prep quarterback prospect in the country. He also had overtures from professional baseball teams.
Once the Gators offered a football scholarship, Driskel’s immediate future became much clearer. He arrived last spring to much ballyhoo and opened his freshman season as John Brantley’s backup.
He quickly adjusted to a new hype meter monitoring his development.
“I knew coming in that there is always going to be attention on a school like Florida. And that’s what you want,’’ Driskel said. “You don’t want to go to a school that is not going to be noticed. You want to go to a school that has recognition and that is going to be talked about on ‘SportsCenter’ day in and day out.
“Hopefully this year we’ll be talked about for how we’re getting going again and not struggling.”
Driskel has an opportunity to play a key role in a potential Gators’ rebirth. He enters spring practice battling fellow sophomore Jacoby Brissett to be the team’s starting quarterback.
The spotlight is clearly shining on Driskel more than ever, but after facing national champion Alabama’s defense last season in relief of an injured Brantley, Driskel is determined to handle whatever is thrown his way.
“I mean, after Alabama, there are not going to be many situations that are worse than that,’’ said Driskel, who lost a fumble and suffered an ankle injury in the 38-10 loss. “Obviously it can’t hurt to be thrown in against the No. 1 defense in years. I’m not going to see a defense like that probably ever again.”
While Driskel played in three of the first four games last season in mop-up duty, he came in against Alabama’s vaunted defense with the game still on the line. He finished 2 of 6 for 14 yards, his only highlight a 31-yard run for a first down.
Two weeks later at Auburn with Brissett starting two consecutive games in Brantley’s place, Driskel was called on and was much more efficient by going 9-for-18 for 75 yards.
“I missed some big-time throws, but I felt comfortable,’’ he said. “You’ve just got to make the plays [in those situations].”
While Driskel and Brissett each received significant playing time as true freshmen, neither is a clear-cut favorite heading into spring camp.
Gators coach Will Muschamp is hoping that separation begins to emerge over the next month.
“We would like to declare a starter and move forward with it, but we'll name that when it's ready,’’ he said. “We're going to do what we need to win games. If we've got to play both guys, we'll play both guys. Both guys have had good offseasons and very pleased with their progress to this point and where we are.”
Driskel didn’t play again after the Auburn game as Brantley returned and Brissett served as the primary backup. He finished his freshman season hitting 16 of 34 passes for 148 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions.
While it was trial by fire at times for the 6-foot-4, 232-pound Driskel, he remains optimistic he can make up any ground he may have lost. The lack of playing time after Brissett’s debut in a loss at LSU only adds motivation.
“It was frustrating losing, that’s for sure,’’ he said. “No one is happy when we’re losing. It’s easy to think that, ‘Oh, I could be in there doing better,’ but I was just mad that we weren’t winning, as everyone should have been.”
New offensive coordinator Brent Pease likes the attitude both players have shown in his short time here. Pease, after mostly watching film of the two young quarterbacks for the past few months, is ready to see Driskel and Brissett in live action.
“Both the kids are very eager,’’ Pease said. “They've been grinding on film on their own because they can take that and use as much of that time as they're willing to do. I've been in a situation where you've had to use both [quarterbacks].
“It'll work well if you've got the right type of kids that both can compete and you kind of use their strengths to how you're going to manage the game. Not particularly in favor of that. I'd rather see one kid step forward and take charge and be productive and let it be his team.”
Driskel has never had a problem with competition and took the field at the first practice of spring camp determined to show improvement.
He admitted that at times he fit the deer-in-headlights cliché as a freshman.
“There is competition at every position, not just quarterback, but obviously the quarterbacks are spotlighted,’’ he said. “The competition is going to make us better. I think we both have very similar traits. We’re similar in size, similar in build. I think it’s just going to be whoever makes the most plays in camp, which it should be.”
Driskel grew up a Gators fan and while he had offers from most of the major schools, his decision to come to UF was a relatively easy one when former Gators coach Urban Meyer started recruiting him heavily.
Driskel remained committed once Meyer resigned after the 2010 season. When Meyer resurfaced at Ohio State last winter, the rumor mill churned that Driskel might join him considering that in high school he played in an offense more similar to Meyer’s than the pro-style system former Gators offensive coordinator Charlie Weis installed a season ago.
Driskel laughs at all the speculation and Internet rumors.
“That’s easy to say. It’s just people trying to make a story,’’ he said. “I’m here. I signed here to be here and compete for four years and that’s what I’m going to do. We have a great group of guys here working hard to get us back on top.”
Since the end of last season and Weis’ departure, much of Driskel’s free time has been spent studying film of Pease’s offense at Boise State.
The up-tempo style Pease is known for is appealing to Driskel – even more so when he imagines himself as the guy in the spotlight running the offense.
“The quarterback has got to be a leader,’’ he said. “For the most part, a team can go only as far as the quarterback takes it. I mean, I’m going to do what I can. I’m not going to run my mouth too much, but I’m going to do what I can.”