By Lars Anderson
HOOVER, Ala. -- In many ways he's been a typical college student for the last nine months. He watched Florida's away games last fall from the couch in his off-campus house in Gainesville, his soft brown eyes riveted by every play, his heart sinking with every Gators loss, those seven straight, gut-punching defeats to end the season. He rode to classes on a yellow scooter, blending into the background of the bustling, sun-drenched campus, and he worked this summer at a local barbecue joint called 4 Rivers Smokehouse, where one afternoon a Florida fan asked him for a "brisket sandwich with a side of a national championship."
Things will be very different this autumn for Jeff Driskel. Perhaps more than any other player in the nation, the performance of Driskel, Florida's redshirt junior quarterback, could very well determine the fate of his head coach. The 2013 season was a Category 5 disaster for Will Muschamp, who presided over a historically bad Gators team. Florida lost eight games, the most since 1979 when the team went 0-10-1. The nadir of the 4-8 campaign came when Georgia Southern, then a member of the Football Championship Subdivision, strutted into The Swamp in November and beat Florida 26-20. The Gator offense was hard-to-watch inept: They finished last in the SEC in both scoring and yards per game. The days of Steve Spurrier's Fun 'n Gun never seemed so long ago.
Late in the season, Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley said he had "total confidence" in Muschamp while also adding the team's woeful play was "unacceptable." Muschamp's three-year record at Florida stands at 22-16, the worst three-year stretch since 1987-89 when the Gators went 20-16. Back then the program had a legitimate excuse; it was just emerging from crippling NCAA sanctions. Muschamp has no such easy explanation for why, under his watch, Florida, one of the nation's premiere programs, has fallen into decay. It's safe to say no coach in the SEC will be under more scrutiny this season than the 42-year-old Muschamp, and he's intimately aware of that.
"You want to be the head coach of Florida? Then you better learn to take criticism," Muschamp said. "It's part of the deal. They didn't hold a gun to my head to take the job. There will be a lot of chatter about hot-seat business. That's part of it. The way you combat that is having a winning football team and winning football games, which is what we're going to do."
To be fair to Muschamp, the Gators were positively ravaged by injuries last season, none more significant than the loss of Driskel on Sept. 21 against Tennessee. At the time, offensive coordinator Brent Pease was doing everything in his power to protect Driskel by limiting his running (his biggest strength) and turning him into a pocket passer. Florida was already thin at quarterback -- Jacoby Brissett had transferred to N.C. State in January 2013 -- and Pease knew an injury to Driskel could be catastrophic. But then it happened: after Driskel unleashed a throw against the Volunteers, a pass that would be his last of the season and would be picked off and returned for a touchdown, Tennessee's Marlon Walls hit Driskel from behind. He heard a pop and crack. His right fibula was broken; his season was done. As he was carried off the field in Knoxville, Muschamp shook his head in disbelief, as if he knew precisely what it portended for his future.
"It was tough to watch [last season]," Driskel said at SEC Media Days in Hoover. "That's not something you to talk about every day. It's a sore subject. But at the end of the day it still happened. We have a long way to bounce back from, and we're going to hear it until we show otherwise."
A former five-star recruit who many analysts tabbed the No. 1 duel-threat quarterback in the nation in 2011, the 6-foot-4, 237-pound Driskel is an athletic marvel. He has the 4.5 40-speed to sprint past most defensive backs and impressive arm strength, though his accuracy fluctuates from average to poor. After starring at Hagerty High in Oviedo, Fla., Driskel was seduced by Florida coach Urban Meyer, who told him would be the perfect fit in his spread offense. He would be biggest thing in Gainesville since Tim Tebow.
It hasn't worked out that way. Meyer left and Muschamp was hired. A former defensive coordinator at Texas, Auburn and LSU, Muschamp had long admired smashmouth, ball-control offenses -- Alabama was dominating the SEC with that style -- and that's the offense he installed, even though the roster was filled with players recruited to play Meyer's spread. The system handcuffed Driskel's skillset, but in 2012, as a sophomore, Driskel led the Gators to an 11-2 record and within one game of a possible BCS title birth. Against Vanderbilt, Driskel showed the coaches what he could do if they opened up offense when he ran for 177 yards on 11 carries. It was a dazzling, tantalizing glimpse of Driskel's promise.
But Muschamp stayed committed to his Nick Saban-esque offensive philosophy last season, and the results were disastrous. Even before his injury, Driskel looked lost as he operated under center in Pease's pro-style formation that featured pre-snap motion on virtually every play. The offense was predicated on Driskel's ability to quickly read the defense and figure out where the ball should go. It was suited more for a cerebral quarterback, not an athletic one, and Driskel often seemed baffled and paralyzed as he tried to determine what to do.
The offensive woes led to Pease's firing this winter and the hiring of offensive coordinator Kurt Roper, Florida's third OC in three years. As Duke's offensive coordinator last fall, Roper helped the Blue Devils to a school-record 10 wins, and his résumé includes having a hand in developing Eli Manning at Ole Miss. This spring Roper implemented his up-tempo, no-huddle, spread attack. It will be primarily run out of the shotgun and feature a heavy dose of zone-read option running plays, which will allow Driskel's legs, finally, to become offensive weapons. On pass plays Roper wants the ball out of Driskel's right hand in no less than 2.8 seconds. The goal is to get the ball to receivers on the move in space.
"It's a total 180-degree of thought process from where we were coming from on offense," said Driskel, who is 11-3 as a starter. "Before we were going for time of possession and controlled the ball a lot. Now we want to get in as many plays as possible."
After firing Pease, Muschamp analyzed the 2012 offense and Driskel's production. When he was taking snaps out of the shotgun, Florida averaged 6.8 yards per carry; when he was under center the Gators gained four yards per rush. In the shotgun Driskel completed more than 60 percent of his passes; under center, his completion percentage dipped to lower than 50.
"When Jeff was in shotgun our yards were better, our explosive plays were better in both the run and pass game," Muschamp said. "He was recruited to Florida to be a gun quarterback. In making that change, I felt like Kurt Roper was a great hire for us from a standpoint of a guy that philosophically is on the same page with me as what we want to be, that's a balanced offense."
Driskel is now fully recovered from the broken leg, which required a metal plate and 10 screws to repair. He's been working on strengthening his grip so he can throw the ball without his fingers on the laces so he can unleash it fast and he's tried to improve his lateral quickness. This spring he spent countless hours with his roommates -- including offensive lineman Trip Thurman -- reviewing flash cards he made that featured the plays in Roper's spread.
"Jeff had a great offseason and a great spring," defensive lineman Dante Fowler said. "Being able to see Jeff in the spring -- being in his comfort zone in the shotgun -- and just being able to play again. Once you get an injury and you sit out that long, you're just ready to play again, and you're hungry. I think that was a time for him to sit back and realize things that were going on, and it helped him get better as a player in my opinion. He looked better, this is the best I ever saw him … I think he's the best quarterback in the SEC."
Florida opens the season with three straight home games against Idaho, Eastern Michigan and Kentucky. The Gators should be 3-0 and ranked in the top 25 when they roll into Tuscaloosa to face Alabama on Sept. 20. It's a game that Driskel, who some NFL personnel believe possesses first-round ability, has been thinking about all offseason, a game that could go a long way toward determining whether or not his head coach will be led to the gallows at season's end.
"That's why you come to Florida is to play in big SEC games like that," Driskel said. "Couldn't think of a better way to start the SEC schedule than a win at Alabama on the road."
July is always a time of dreams in college football. Now the future is filled with possibility. Florida's date with Saban and Co. is two months away.
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Lars Anderson is a 20-year veteran of Sports Illustrated and the author of six books, including The Storm and the Tide, which will be published in August. He's currently an instructor of journalism at the University of Alabama.