GatorZone.com Senior Writer
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Whatever comes of his time at Florida, Jeff Driskel has a good story to tell about his first two career starts.
Driskel can someday tell his kids or his next-door neighbor in old age that he ruined otherwise perfectly sunny days for nearly 200,000 fans on the road.
First he did it at Texas A&M in front of more than 87,000 Aggies hyped for their SEC debut. And on Saturday he did the same to more than 102,000 Tennessee fans hungry for a long-awaited win over the Gators.
Florida 37, Tennessee 20 was not what they had in mind.
Driskel got the job done both times. Asked if he could remember a young quarterback winning his first two starts in such hostile environments, Gators coach Will Muschamp said: "I haven't seen any."
Driskel showed obvious signs of improvement on Saturday at a packed Neyland Stadium, completing 14 of 20 passes for 219 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. Driskel added 81 yards on eight rushes for 300 yards of total offense.
Oh, and he was not sacked once. He vowed to do a better job of getting rid of the ball faster after being sacked eight times at Texas A&M.
Muschamp saw improvement in Driskel, a sophomore from Oviedo who edged Jacoby Brissett in a closely contested quarterback battle in camp.
"I think [he improved], but we’re playing well around him,'' Muschamp said. "Again, he made some gutsy plays. I think the game will continue to slow down. He played extremely well and got us in and out of the right runs and the right situations and right protections."
Driskel was at his best in the second half when he tossed a 23-yard touchdown to Jordan Reed that gave the Gators a 27-20 lead with 30 seconds left in the third quarter.
He later connected with Frankie Hammond on a curl route that Hammond broke off for a 75-yard touchdown pass to send many in Tennessee orange toward the exits. The play gave Florida a 34-20 lead with 9:55 left in the game.
Florida offensive coordinator Brent Pease opened up the playbook more than the first two games. With Tennessee determined to stop the running game and make Driskel throw early, once Driskel started to make plays in the passing game after halftime, the run game exploded.
Driskel played his role well, making plays when he had to and avoiding costly mistakes.
"He is so balanced right now in run-throw,'' Pease said. "He made some great throws. He stood in the pocket. He had some people in his face and he threw the ball. The kid showed some toughness, showed some awareness, showed accuracy.
"I think he took huge steps."
Driskel showed off his passing skills in the second half, going 6-for-8 for 129 yards and two touchdowns as Florida overcame a 14-10 halftime deficit to score its most points in Knoxville since 1984.
His first big pass of the second half came to Trey Burton for 32 yards, setting up a field goal. After Burton's 80-yard run tied the game at 20-20, on Florida's next drive Driskel hit Reed for the go-ahead score.
Driskel avoided a rush, moved up in the pocket and then threw across the field into the corner of the end zone to Reed.
"Driskel is definitely improving,'' Gators linebacker Lerentee McCray said. "He made some plays and I was like, 'Wow, I didn't know he could do that.' He definitely impressed me."
The same goes for Gators center Jon Harrison, who can see Driskel's confidence increase with each series.
"I saw a change in him,'' Harrison said. "He trusted in his offensive line to make a play that needed to be made, and then when nothing was there, he just made a play with his feet, which was amazing."
Perhaps the most impressive number for Driskel after two starts and three games -- he played the first quarter and entire second half in the season opener against Bowling Green -- is zero interceptions.
That's always a concern for young quarterbacks, but Driskel has passed the test.
"Driskel is starting to settle into the game. I can tell the game is probably slowing down for him some,'' Hammond said. "He is starting to read things, pick up things. Now it's just time to dive in and grow as an offense and grow as a team."
Driskel kept his performance in perspective afterward. He knows that it's only two games. Sure, two big road wins, but only two starts into his career.
"I still have a long way to go,'' he said. " I definitely got better from Game 1 to Game 2."
He said part of the improvement simply came from having another week of preparation, which helped expand his comfort zone in the offense.
"We know that Coach Pease and the offensive staff is going to put us in good situations, and give us chances and give us vertical stretches.'' he said. "They are going to keep pressing it. I knew our routes a little bit better and I knew their defense a little better, and that just makes you more comfortable back there."
Driskel became the fifth Gators quarterback since 1990 to win his first career start against the Vols, a short list that also includes Danny Wuerffel and Tim Tebow.
That's some pretty good company for Driskel to keep. It can also add to his story.