GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- You can imagine Jeff Driskel’s anticipation when he tuned in Tuesday night to watch his future offensive coordinator, Duke’s Kurt Roper, call plays in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
Just like you can imagine the smile on his face for what turned out to be a very happy -- make that ecstatic -- New Year’s Eve for the UF quarterback.
“It was awesome to watch,” Driskel told GatorZone.com. “When Duke came out chucking the ball deep, it was pretty exciting for me.”
For Driskel and everyone else in the orange and blue universe.
Though Texas A&M staged a stunning comeback in its 52-48 victory, Duke amassed 661 yards of total offense, including 224 on the ground, to go with 29 first downs and receptions to eight different Blue Devil receivers. In context, those 661 yards were more than twice as many as the Gators averaged in 2013 when they finished last in the Southeastern Conference in total offense (316.7 yards per game), and 246 yards more than UF’s season-high output of 414 in the opener against Toledo.
Yes, A&M finished at the bottom of the SEC in total defense, surrendering 460 yards per game, but this game was about visualizing the possibilities when Roper, who was hired Dec. 26 to replace outgoing UF coordinator Brent Pease, officially joins Gators coach Will Muschamp’s staff this week.
“It was pretty cool to watch and kind of envision what we could be like next year,” said Driskel, who saw Duke quarterback Anthony Boone hit 29 of 45 passes for 427 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. “I’d heard a lot of things about Coach Roper from people that I really respect. I heard that he kind of builds his offense around the personnel he has, so I tried to see who he was trying to get the ball to in certain situations and match-ups he obviously liked. ... I’ve heard he’s a guy who’s going to get the most out of each individual player. Now, there’s a lot I didn’t see because it was the really the first time I watched a lot of Duke. All I know is they were moving the ball at will the whole game.”
And that was a good place to begin.
“In a bowl game, when a team has an opportunity to game-plan against you for three or four weeks, to be able to put up those kinds of stats, that was impressive,” junior offensive lineman Max Garcia said. “It just goes to show you how well Coach Roper is at preparing his offense. He puts his playmakers out there and gets the ball to them.”
Duke not only had a 400-yard quarterback, but two 100-yard receivers and came eight yards from having two 100-yard running backs.
Wideout Quinton Dunbar, UF’s leading receiver in 2013 and a senior-to-be in the fall, certainly took notice of that middle statistic. Specifically, the production of Jamison Crowder, who finished with 12 catches for 163 yards and a touchdown.
“It was great to see how they were throwing the ball vertically and doing it with tempo from all those different formations,” Dunbar said. “But mostly, I was thinking of how the talent that we have right now could fit in and dominant, especially if we work hard at it.”
UF's running backs and offensive linemen no doubt liked those 6.3 yards per carry the Blue Devils averaged on the ground.
It’s safe to assume, though, that getting to the level of efficiency at which Duke operated in averaging 426 yards and nearly 33 points per game in the Atlantic Coast Conference last season is not going to be easy to replicate in the SEC. Roper will come in with his system, but it will be up to the UF players to make it work in college football's best league.
“I think all the players that need to be here to make this work are here. If they’re not, we’re going to get them,” Garcia said. “Now, it’s up to us, as players, to buy into what Coach Roper is trying to do.”
He gave them 661 reasons to do so.
“We’ve got a whole new offense to learn, so we’ve got to get in the playbook and take advantage of spring football and be ready to kind do it ourselves during the summer,” Driskel said. “If we don’t know what we’re doing come summertime, we’re not going to be able to do it by ourselves because we’re not allowed to have coaches out there when we’re throwing. So a lot of that work is on us. We’re going to have be very committed to spring ball and be ready to carry that over into summer.”
Driskel is still on the mend from a season-ending broken leg suffered in the third game of his junior year, but UF’s health staff has told him he’s ahead of schedule in his rehab. He hopes to be ready when the team reports for spring practice in April.
The level of anticipation for his return went up Tuesday night. And again Wednesday morning when his cell phone rang on New Year's Day.
It was Roper.
“He just called to say he was excited to get started and get Florida back to where we need to be,” Driskel said. “I told him I was excited to get to work, too. How could you not be after seeing those kinds of numbers? It wasn’t a long conversation.”
It didn’t have to be.