Driskel has been a key in Gators' ascent

Jeff Driskel was a restless spectator last October when LSU pinned a 41-11 beating on Florida.

He didn’t play a snap and instead watched from the sideline after spraining his ankle the week before against Alabama.

“I didn’t even dress,” Driskel recounted. “It was a hard game to watch.”

On Saturday, when No. 4 LSU invades the Swamp, Driskel won’t have to worry about finding a good vantage point on the Gators’ sideline. He’ll be right in the middle of the fray.

This will be his fourth consecutive game as Florida’s starting quarterback, and in a lot of ways, his progress since nailing down the job in the opener has mirrored that of the entire Gators team. There’s a steadiness and a blue-collar, get-it-done approach about him. And when the second half rolls around, he seems to be at his best.

“Having confidence in the quarterback is huge,” said Driskel, who’s completing 69.6 percent of his passes and has turned the ball over just once this season. “The offense feeds off the quarterback and gets momentum from the quarterback, so the quarterback has to have confidence and go into the huddle and command the huddle and be the leader of the offense.

“I feel like that’s probably the biggest improvement that I’ve made thus far.”

Of course, it only builds the confidence of everybody around him when he stands in there and makes the kind of throws he did in both road victories at Texas A&M and Tennessee.

The Gators haven’t called on Driskel to throw the ball a lot to this point (79 pass attempts). But when they have, he’s delivered.

Driskel’s 39-yard pass to Omarius Hines in the fourth quarter set up the go-ahead touchdown against Texas A&M. A week later, he connected with Jordan Reed for a 23-yard score and then hit Frankie Hammond with a 75-yard touchdown pass to fuel a second-half rally against Tennessee.

On Reed’s touchdown, Driskel had two defenders bearing down on him but bought just enough time to throw a strike before taking a big hit. And on Hammond’s touchdown, Driskel stood in there against a corner blitz and delivered the ball to Hammond with plenty of room to run.

“Those are plays I have to make,” Driskel said. “It’s my job as the quarterback of this team.”

LSU coach Les Miles said this week that Driskel has gotten better with each throw, which is true. But he’s also gotten more comfortable, and the game is beginning to slow down for the 6-foot-4, 237-pound sophomore.

“My internal clock has gotten a lot better just from a couple of games ago against Texas A&M,” Driskel said. “I took eight sacks, and that can’t happen. I’ve gotten better, watched the film and learned from it. I’ve gotten used to the speed and have a much better feel for when it’s time to take off and run and when it’s time to get rid of it.”

Driskel’s ability to run makes him that much more difficult to defend. He’s the Gators’ second-leading rusher with 148 yards, and his 21-yard scramble late in the Texas A&M game was a big reason the Gators were able to keep the ball and not have to punt it back to the Aggies.

Driskel has seen all the tape he needs to see of LSU’s defense to know how good and how talented the Tigers are on that side of the ball. It will easily be the toughest assignment of the season for the Gators.

Even so, Driskel’s role doesn’t change.

“I think Jeff needs to be Jeff,” Florida coach Will Muschamp said. “We don’t need any superhuman effort out here. We just need to go out and execute and play our game, and that’s what we plan on doing. He doesn’t need to do any more than he’s done in the previous four weeks.”

Along those same lines, Driskel said the Gators won’t be wowed by LSU’s depth or talent on the defensive line. They’ve averaged 224.5 rushing yards in their first four games, and they’re not about to veer away from the run now.

“We’ve got to be able to run the ball. That’s who we are on offense,” Driskel said. “We’re not going to change for different teams or anything like that. We understand that they have a great defensive line and are really fast up front and really physical, but you have to be confident against them. You can’t go in saying, ‘Oh, their front four is better than our line,’ because we feel we have a great line and they’ve played great all year.

“We’re going to keep riding them.”

And for anybody who thinks this might be a repeat of a year ago when the Gators also started out 4-0 before losing four in a row starting with No. 3 Alabama, Driskel said this is an entirely different team.

“There’s no comparison,” he said. “We have guys now who have bought into our program. They’re program guys, and they put the program before anything else. That’s what Coach Muschamp drills into our head, and that’s the way it’s got to be if you’re going to be a part of this team.”

Driskel’s emergence is a big reason this team has been able to climb into the top 10 of the polls.

He and the rest of the Gators get to prove Saturday that they belong there.

And this time, Driskel gets to do a lot more than watch.