Driskel blocking out the criticism

HOOVER, Ala. -- Jeff Driskel heard it last season. Florida returned to Gainesville from a loss at Miami where he turned the ball over three times, and the criticism quickly followed. It has continued into the offseason, but Florida’s redshirt junior quarterback has done his best to ignore it.

“I typically don’t let it get to me,” Jeff Driskel said. “I don’t want to play well because others are down on me. I want to play well because that’s why I was recruited to the University of Florida -- to play football at a high level. I don’t let fans get to me.

“I want to be a good quarterback, and I plan to show everybody that’s what I am.”

Through the first two games of last season, Driskel went 39-55 (70.1 percent) for two touchdowns and two interceptions. He wasn’t playing like a Heisman Trophy candidate, but he wasn’t on the verge of losing his job either. After a bye week, Driskel played just one quarter against Tennessee before a broken leg ended his season.

The nine quarters of play from last season have impacted the way the Florida fan base sees him. It’s frustrating for those inside the program, especially the Florida coach.

“I don’t think it’s fair to judge him last year off two games,” Will Muschamp said. “He was a guy that had an outstanding fall camp and was progressing well. You take three bad plays away from the Miami game, he played pretty well. We didn’t protect him very well. He had 10 explosive passes in that game. I’m very pleased with how he has progressed.”

Driskel admits that it wasn’t perfect. Even with the high completion percentage, there were enough mistakes to make him take a second look at the film. The problem he noticed, and first-year offensive coordinator Kurt Roper also pointed out, was that too many of his turnover came in the redzone.

That was a focus in practice this spring. Roper emphasized that Driskel needed to be smarter with the bad, especially when the Gators get inside the 20-yard line.

“It’s knowing when to take chances and when not to,” Driskel said. “My turnovers have been highlighted because a lot of them were in the red zone. I have to know when to take the points and live another day. I think I’ve been educated on that. I’ve grown as a quarterback and am going to cut down on those.”

The negative feedback comes with the territory, and that’s what the coaches have tried to emphasize to Driskel. No one knows that better than Muschamp.

“It’s part of it. Jeff understands that,” Muschamp said. “If you want to be the head coach or the quarterback at Florida, you have to put up with it. Jeff is a determined young man and a great competitor, a leader. He’s what you want.

“We’ve been through a lot together. I’m glad he’s my quarterback.”

Last year was educational for Driskel, even when he wasn’t on the field. After the injury against Tennessee, he was forced to watch the rest of the season from the sideline or his couch. The Gators went 2-7 the rest of the way, causing frustrations to grow as Driskel watched.

His emotions went different ways throughout the season, but above them all was a sense of helplessness.

“The hardest part is not being able to help,” Muschamp said. “You’re sitting on the couch watching away games, and you feel bad. You feel like you should be doing something but you can’t. You feel like you’re letting people down.”

The goal is now to be better prepared if Driskel does go down. Florida wasn’t in that situation last season. Tyler Murphy was forced into action and played well when healthy, but the step down in talent was still noticeable.

Muschamp made it clear on Monday that they plan to be in better position if a backup is needed this year. The battle for the backup job will go through fall camp between Will Grier, Treon Harris and Skyler Mornhinweg. Whoever wins the job will be thrown onto the field in the first game to ensure the Gators have a backup ready if needed.

They’ve also encouraged Driskel to be smarter. The injury against Tennessee was a fluky one that was not Driskel’s fault. Muschamp did point to a 2012 injury against Louisiana where Driskel held onto the ball too long and took a hit, forcing him to miss the Jacksonville State game the following week.

“Jeff has to be smarter in some run situations,” Muschamp said.

Even with the struggles and injuries in the last two years, the Florida players remain confident in their quarterback.

“I think Jeff is the best quarterback in college football,” Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III said. “I think it showed last year. I can definitely tell in spring, the offense has a different feel when he is on the field. From practicing against him every day, from seeing him play two years ago, from seeing him play last year in the first three games, that is my opinion.”

Driskel has been developing some favorite targets this spring. Everyone expected last year to be the one where Demarcus Robinson went through his breakout, but it looks now like it could be this fall. Driskel mentioned him multiple times in different interview rooms on Monday.

“A name that I think a lot of people are going to hear is Demarcus Robinson,” Driskel said. “He’s really talented and has all the skills in the world.”

The Gators got a new weapon in the summer. Virginia tight end Jake McGee graduated and elected to transfer for his final year of eligibility. The Gators desperately needed a productive tight end, pushing McGee likely into a starting role this fall.

He needed somewhere to live in Gainesville this summer, so he moved in with Driskel, offensive lineman Trip Thurman and punter Kyle Christy.

“He’s a great guy,” Driskel said. “We’re really lucky to have him. I had the chance to watch some game tape from the past few seasons at Virginia. He’s an accomplished tight end in college football. He has done it before and can do it again. Great hands, great frame. He’s just a great person to have around.”

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