Friday October 5, 2012Man On The Move: QB Jeff Driskel's Recent Rise Has Improved Gators' Outlook
Gators quarterback Jeff Driskel has ignited Florida's offense since being named the starter.
Gators quarterback Jeff Driskel has ignited Florida's offense since being named the starter.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Jeff Driskel prefers life on the move.
He doesn’t know any other way after growing up in a Navy family.
“He definitely is not a video-game kid. He’s not a big TV watcher,’’ said Mary Driskel, Jeff’s mom. “He’s always active, always wanting to do something.”
Driskel’s need for movement holds true whether he is on the field as the Gators’ dual-threat quarterback or trying to decide how to spend those few rare days of freedom during the season.
Should he take off running or wait for a receiver to come open?
With no practice or classes, should he go fishing?
What about skeet shooting with some of his teammates?
Take last weekend for example. The Gators were off following perhaps the most significant month of Driskel’s young life. In a span of four weeks the 19-year-old sophomore emerged from the heat of a quarterback battle to being called the SEC’s breakout player of the year by CBS analyst Gary Danielson, who is working Florida’s game Saturday against No. 4-ranked LSU.
Even for someone who likes to stay in motion Driskel’s pace has undoubtedly quickened of late.
His coach at Hagerty High in Oviedo has yet to adjust to turning on ESPN and seeing highlights of Driskel on his big screen.
“For me personally it’s been kind of surreal,’’ said Hagerty football coach Nate Gierke said. “It’s different as a head coach when you see Kirk Herbstreit dissecting a guy who played for you, or Lou Holtz talk about his arm strength. It’s been a lot of fun. It’s just weird. It’s an awesome thing knowing they are breaking him down because of how much success he’s had.”
Driskel seems to be adjusting just fine. Back to last weekend.
With no game to prepare for on Saturday, Driskel drove to his Orlando-area home to watch Hagerty’s game against Oviedo High on Friday night. Driskel’s younger brother, Jason, is now Hagerty’s starting quarterback. The Huskies lost the game but Driskel felt right at home as former classmates, teachers and friends asked him to take a photo.
Driskel obliged politely. That’s what he does.
Hagerty baseball coach Jered Goodwin spent much of the game hanging out with Driskel. Goodwin is only a decade older and the two formed a close bond during Driskel’s days playing center field for Goodwin’s Hagerty team and an AAU travel team he coaches.
Every once in a while Goodwin would steal a glimpse of Driskel and grin, knowing that if Driskel had his way, he would have slipped right into the crowd without anyone blinking an eye.
“This kid is shy,’’ Goodwin said. “He hates it, but I always call him awkward, some of the things he says and does. He is genuinely one of the nicest guys and the No. 1 hardest worker I have ever had. He’s one of those guys who kind of have a small group of friends outside the field and leads by example in everything he does.
“He is really just a good boy. It’s been really neat for me to watch.”
Driskel’s recent play for the 4-0 Gators isn’t the first time his athletic prowess has made him stand out in a crowd.
Driskel was born in Jacksonville and lived there – developing into a pretty good T-ball player -- for the first few years of his life while his parents, Jerry and Mary, worked for the U.S. Navy. A Naval senior chief, Jerry was assigned to the U.S. Naval Base in Sasebo, Japan, when Driskel was 7.
During the family’s three years overseas Jeff gained quite a reputation for his ability to hit a baseball.
His nickname: Godzilla.
Seeking to expose their kids to Japanese culture off the Naval Base and give them a sports outlet, Jerry and Mary signed Jeff and Jason up in a local Little League. None of the coaches spoke English, so some of the Japanese wives of Navy men served as translators.
The league was for kids who were ages 6 to 12, so Jeff was one of the youngest players. Still, he was bigger and taller than most, including some of the coaches. He also showed the type of commitment that Florida coach Will Muschamp has talked about since Driskel became the Gators’ starting quarterback.
“They practiced every Saturday and Sunday for eight hours a day,’’ Mary said. “It was really a good way for him to keep up at a competitive level.”
Driskel did more than keep up. Some of Driskel’s home runs were of the mammoth variety. Pretty soon his Japanese teammates and coaches began to call him Godzilla. The team traveled to several different cities in Japan and Driskel got his first tiny taste of sports celebrity thanks to those long home runs. Godzilla even learned to sing a couple of songs in Japanese to fit in.
Driskel later penned an article for an American magazine named Junior Baseball/Player’s Story. In the 2004 March/April issue, Driskel wrote about his short-lived stint as an international phenom:
“Even though we don’t speak the same language, my teammates in Japan are my very good friends and we’ve learned to communicate on the field. Playing baseball in Japan has helped me to learn more about the game of baseball and also about discipline, honor, and respect as well.”
Once the family returned to the U.S., the Driskel clan settled near Orlando, where Jerry was once a pretty good baseball player at Colonial High prior to joining the Navy. Jeff resumed his baseball career, traveling to AAU tournaments around the country. He played in Arizona and visited the Grand Canyon. He played in a tournament in Cooperstown and visited the Baseball Hall of Fame.
He also kept growing. By middle school he was as big as most high school kids. Finally, he joined his first football team in the seventh grade. He was a starting defensive lineman until fate intervened.
“I was the third-string quarterback and the two guys in front of me got hurt, and ever since then, I’ve played quarterback,’’ Driskel said.
By the time he got to ninth grade Driskel’s athletic talent was so obvious that Gierke named him the Huskies’ starting quarterback two games into his freshman season. Meanwhile, that spring Goodwin immediately inserted Driskel into the lineup in center field and the No. 4 hole.
Driskel was a hotshot baseball recruit well before developing into the No. 1 prep quarterback in the country his senior season according to Rivals.com and Scout.com.
Georgia recruited him so heavily he took multiple trips there with his parents. The Gators were on to him early, too.
“The same skill set you see on the football field is what he brought on the baseball field,’’ Gators baseball coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “He’s a special athlete in the sense that he’s a big, physical athlete that can run. You look out on the field and he sticks out. He’s a prototypical five-tool athlete in baseball. He’s got power, he can hit, he can run, he can throw. That’s basically him in nutshell.”
Goodwin loves to tell the story about the day at practice when Driskel hit a home run so far that it landed on the school’s softball field. A former pitcher and MLB draft pick, Goodwin had never seen such power from a kid so young.
“He started getting in a groove and he hit a ball in the middle of the softball field, which is probably 50 feet, 60 feet back of the baseball field,’’ Goodwin said. “And then there’s probably a 50-foot fence that he hit it over. We tape-measured it at 477 [feet], and he did that when he was 15 years old. We actually got the tape measure out and tracked to where it actually landed. That’s not a guess. It’s a pretty accurate reading.”
While Goodwin said scouts told him Driskel could have gone in the first round of the MLB Draft if he stayed with baseball, Driskel solidified his place as one of the nation’s top football recruits after his junior season at Hagerty. He was named MVP of the Elite 11 Camp in California, beating out other top quarterbacks such as Teddy Bridgewater, Phillip Ely, Kiehl Frazier and DeMarcus Smith.
He had already verbally pledged to the Gators at that point and remained committed after former Gators coach Urban Meyer unexpectedly resigned after the 2010 season and Muschamp took over.
In his final prep game at Hagerty, Driskel played what he considers the best game of his career when he threw for 182 yards and rushed for 270 yards in a 56-35 loss to traditional power Lakeland in the FHSAA state playoffs.
ESPN.com recruiting analyst Derek Tyson, a former quarterback at Armwood High near Tampa, was at the game.
“They played Lakeland, which was clearly the better team,’’ Tyson said. “Everybody could see it, but Driskel himself kept them in the game. It was the best high school performance I’ve ever seen in covering recruiting, and it’s not even close. It was pretty obvious he was a special player.
“He was so strong that the guys on his team couldn’t catch a lot of the passes. The thing that kind of blows you away is how fast he is for his size.”
In high school Driskel took several family trips on what Mary likes to call The Driskel’s SEC Tour. Former Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville chased him hard, telling him to drive past the Gainesville exit. Alabama wanted him. Mary tried to convince Jeff that he should go to South Carolina – her alma mater – but Jeff told her that wasn’t in the cards only a few minutes after stepping on the city campus. He preferred a college town.
As a Florida commit on the recruiting trail Driskel heard those inevitable comparisons considering that at 6-foot-4, 240 pounds, Driskel looked like a linebacker trapped in a quarterback’s jersey. Yes, those Tim Tebow comparisons. There was no avoiding them so Driskel politely answered the reporters’ questions and moved on.
Mary often joked with Jeff about the Tebow comparisons.
“He’s not going to be that rah-rah guy. In the heat of battle, he gets pretty excited,’’ Mary said. “But he’s not that cheerleader. I was like, ‘Jeff, I just can never see you being Tim Tebow, being that guy cheering the fans on in the stands and that kind of stuff.’ ’’
“No, I can’t be that,’’ he said. “That’s not me.”
Still, there are some Tebow-esque qualities about Driskel. They are both multi-dimensional quarterbacks not afraid to take a hit. They both spent time living in foreign countries growing up. They are humble and approachable. They both have ties to Jacksonville.
Of course, it’s unrealistic to compare Driskel to the iconic Tebow this early in his young career, but Driskel definitely has a comparable All-American kid persona going for him. He was Homecoming King in high school. His mom still serves pre-game meals to Hagerty’s games prior to each game. And then, shortly after arriving at UF in January 2011, Driskel met Tarin Moses during a gathering at former teammate John Brantley’s house.
The two chatted, developed a friendship over the next few months, and officially became a couple earlier this year. They shared a special moment on the field at Neyland Stadium after Florida’s win last month.
Moses was on the field, too. She is captain of the Gators’ cheerleading squad.
So the quarterback-dates-cheerleader storyline remains alive and well outside Hollywood.
“A lot of people seem to be fascinated by it on Twitter,’’ Moses quipped. “Jeff is very relaxed and easy going all the time. He is extremely slow to anger and that is probably one of my favorite things about him. I always call him my sweet boy because he is the most genuine person I know and would never to anything to intentionally hurt someone’s feelings.”
It didn’t take Moses long to discover where Driskel’s down-to-earth approach to life comes from: Jerry and Mrs. Mary, what those close to Jeff’s mom call her. Moses said when Jerry tells those close to him goodbye, he always says “bring it in” as he pulls you in for a hug. She heard Jeff say the same thing when some kids asked to take a picture after the Orange and Blue game.
“I just laughed,’’ said Moses, who is from the Tampa area and received a UF cheerleading scholarship. “He is very similar to his dad.”
Speaking of similarities, the one Florida fans appear most excited about in regard to Driskel and Tebow is their ability to make plays and change games in an instant.
Driskel will make just his fourth career start on Saturday, but he has revived Florida’s offense in a way that has been lacking the past couple of seasons. Driskel has a strong enough arm to make all the throws. He also has 4.5-speed in the 40, so he can escape the pocket and make plays with his feet. He has shown a calmness that extends beyond those moments when strangers approach him for a photo.
“I think they’re much improved,’’ LSU coach Les Miles said. “They’re making quality decisions at the quarterback spot.”
Driskel was injured in the Alabama game last season and missed Florida’s 41-11 loss in Baton Rouge. Mary said she was concerned about Jeff’s state of mind since with Brantley hurt, the door was open for him to assert himself the way he did in Pop Warner and at Hagerty when the opportunity arrived.
Instead, Jacoby Brissett earned a pair of starts and moved ahead of Driskel on the depth chart. In retrospect Mary said she should probably have known better.
This is Jeff we’re talking about. Younger son Jason is more like her.
“Even when he got hurt in the Alabama game and not knowing where he was going with football, he never came back and said, ‘Gosh, I wish I had played baseball.’ He just said he was going to work hard,’’ Mary Driskel said. “I’ve never seen him way, way giddy or way, way low. He just seems to always be in the middle. I knew last year was tough for him. I worried more about him than I should have, because he was fine.
“There is not a whole lot of difference in him now than there was last year.”
Maybe not in his approach, but his performance is drastically different. In four games Driskel has completed 55 of 79 passes (69.6 percent) for 698 yards, four touchdowns and one interception. He has led the Gators to road wins at Texas A&M and Tennessee – he earned SEC Offensive Player of the Week honors for his effort in Knoxville – and has progressed each week in first-year offensive coordinator Brent Pease’s pro-style system.
Muschamp is not surprised after being around Driskel for nearly two years now.
“He is a cerebral guy,” Muschamp said. “He is going to learn and work at it and watch the film and understand. He takes coaching very well.”
Pease has praised Driskel for the way he constantly asks good questions at practice and in film sessions. Driskel’s approach is steady and professional.
Pease can see him gain more confidence the more he plays. The results fans are excited about have not come by chance. Driskel may be young but is wise in football terms.
“He’s mature,’’ Pease said. “I just think his knowledge has gotten a lot better. He’s just starting to see the whole picture.”
Gators center Jon Harrison could sense Driskel’s growth almost play-by-play in the second half of the win at Tennessee. The Gators trailed at halftime, but Driskel’s 23-yard touchdown pass to Jordan Reed in the third quarter put Florida ahead, and his 75-yard touchdown pass to Frankie Hammond – Driskel picked up a blitz on the play and quickly threw to Hammond – put the Gators in control and sent orange-clad Vols fans trudging to the exits.
“We have a lot confidence in him," Harrison said. "He can make a play either with his arm or with his feet. That's why we have so much confidence in him. He will make a play somehow.”
Driskel’s career as UF’s starting quarterback remains a story in its opening chapter. Some, like CBS analyst Danielson, are firm believers that Florida is back and Driskel is a big reason why. Others are much more cautious. They need to see more over an extended period of time before becoming true believers.
As Driskel began to take off over the past month, Gierke noticed more people around Hagerty’s campus talking about Florida’s game over the weekend. He gets stopped in the hallway often. They want to know what he thinks about Driskel’s role in the Gators’ climb back into the top 10 after a two-year absence.
He shoots straight with them.
“A lot of people have asked me if I’m surprised by how quickly he has adjusted and how much he has improved from week to week,’’ Gierke said. “I tell everybody no. I coached him for four years. I’ve seen him do things … that make your eyes bug out of your head. He is so gifted. I still don’t think he knows how good he can really be.
“He’s kind of a quiet, reserved kid, but boy, does he have a competitive spirit.”
Gierke senses many of those same attributes in Jason, who is nearly as big as his older brother but his own person. Jason is more outgoing and has the bigger personality. The Huskies are off to a rough start and some of the games remind Gierke of Jeff’s first couple of seasons when it was painful to look at the scoreboard. Gierke reminds his team often about the elder Driskel, how he stuck it out despite those long Friday nights.
Now look at him, he tells them. Jason Driskel listens even if he knows the story.
Set to turn 16 next month, Jason spent time talking with his older brother about Hagerty’s loss last weekend when Jeff came down to visit. Jason told Jeff what he saw on certain plays. Jeff told Jason what he saw. Then they started to talk other things like brothers do.
Before long it was time for older brother to get back to moving. Godzilla had to get back to Gainesville to get back to work. LSU was coming to town, time to see what the next chapter has in store.
“I know firsthand how hard he works to get to that spot,’’ Jason Driskel said. “To see all his hard work pay off is great for me. He is a great role model. I use his accomplishments in sports to drive me to become successful.”