GatorZone.com Senior Writer
HOOVER, Ala. -- His teammates have been witness to the evolution of Jeff Driskel, who this time last year was one of two candidates for the quarterback job at Florida.
On Tuesday, Driskel bounced from interview room to interview room at Southeastern Conference Media Days as the Gators’ unquestioned guy under center.
“He’s in charge on offense,” senior offensive guard Jon Halapio said. “He’s comfortable with it.”
Defensive tackle Dominique Easley went one better.
“You can see the cockiness,” he said.
A far better adjective would be “confidence,” though every quarterback needs a nice dose of the other stuff to take his game to the next level.
Driskel has the look of a QB who just might be there. Probably because there’s something about being The Man heading into a season -- as opposed to a year ago when he entered fall practice in a heated battle with Jacoby Brissett (since transferred to North Carolina State) -- that has given the junior from Oviedo, Fla., an air about him.
The SEC press got a taste of it on Day 1 of the league’s meet-and-greet kickoff to the college football season at the Winfrey Hotel.
“It’s easier to be more vocal when you’re the set quarterback,” Driskel said. “When there’s a competition, you don’t want to step on anyone’s toes. I’m a lot more confident because I’ve played more and gotten a lot more snaps and played one year as the starting quarterback. I’d say the guys respect me a lot more this year. I’ve opened my mouth a lot more from just being around the guys. It comes with it.”
Though Driskel got plenty of questions about being drafted last month in the 29th round by the Boston Red Sox and signing a non-compete clause with the club, the former prep center fielder diffused the baseball talk -- “I want to be a football player when I grow up,” he joked -- and reiterated that his focus is about being the best quarterback he can be.
Starting with a better one than last year.
In 2012, Driskel started all but one game as the Gators went 11-2, a record reflective of a sound ball-control offense (187.7 yards rushing per game), a tremendous defense that finished second in the conference and forced a ton of turnovers, and outstanding play on special teams.
Notice anything missing?
“We need to more efficient throwing the football,” UF coach Will Muschamp said. “I’m not telling you anything you don’t know.”
Last year, the Gators averaged just 146.3 yards passing per game, the fewest in the SEC, and ranked 116th in the nation (out of 124 FBS programs) throwing the ball.
As a team, Florida threw just 13 touchdown passes. To put that in perspective, league and national champion had 31. Georgia, which won the SEC East by virtue of its defeat of the Gators, threw for 37.
Even Vanderbilt had 17.
“We need to hit more pass plays, we know that,” said Driskel, who completed 63.7 percent of his throws for 1,646 yards, 12 touchdowns and five interceptions during his sophomore year, but also made a slew of big plays with his legs (413 yards rushing, 4 TDs). “The only way to get better is to work on it. That’s what we’ve been doing all offseason.”
UF offensive coordinator Brent Pease, entering his second season with the Gators, has set barometers of 65-percent completions and a 3-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Florida actually wasn’t too far from those numbers a year ago, but in his perfect passing world Driskel would be posting them with 330-yard, 3-TD afternoons.
“Who wouldn’t love to put up big numbers like that?” he said. “That means we’re moving the ball.”
The lack of gaudy passing numbers doesn’t necessarily fall on Driskel. He got very little help from his corps of receivers, particularly in the intermediate to deep passing game.
And you can’t read a Gators preseason prospectus that doesn’t question Florida’s receivers heading into 2013.
“They’re tired of hearing they’re no good,” Driskel said.
The plan is to do something about it.
Muschamp praised junior wideout Quinton Dunbar (36 catches, 383 yards, 4 TDs) as one of the most improved players on the team. The next most productive returning wideout is senior Andre Debose, who caught three passes last year.
That translates to a lot of opportunities for heralded freshmen like Demarcus Robinson (who enrolled in the spring), Alvin Bailey, Ahmad Fullwood, Marqui Hawkins and Chris Thompson, a group recruiting services rated as the best incoming class of receivers in the nation.
“They’ve shown flashes, but you never know until you get out there in pads, break the huddle and you’re on your own for real,” Driskel said. “But, oh yeah, they’re going to get their chance.”
Driskel got his last year and made the most of it. Now it’s time to build on it.
He has the offense’s undivided attention.
“He’s changed, matured and really grown into that leader,” Halapio said. “That’s something we were missing on offense last year -- a vocal leader. But he’s definitely embraced that role now.”
Muschamp put it another, more definitive way.
“Year 2 in the system,” the coach said. “Jeff Driskel? It’s his football team.”