Jeff Driskel takes long route to being the Lions' starting QB

Ninkovich: Lions will have tough time vs. Cowboys (0:24)

Rob Ninkovich contends that the Lions are going to have a tough time with the Cowboys, especially with Matthew Stafford out. (0:24)

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Daniel Vogelbach sat in the stands of The Swamp when he watched it all start to fall apart. He had driven to Gainesville so he could watch his best friend, Jeff Driskel, play quarterback at the University of Florida.

Driskel had won the starting job and felt good about where the 2013 season might go. Then, after throwing an interception, he was dragged down -- and his right fibula broke.

Season over. Everything else in doubt.

With his season as a minor league baseball player over, this was Vogelbach's chance to be of assistance. He took Driskel to rehab and sat with him on the couch for hours, watching movies and television, doing what he could to take Driskel's mind off what had just happened and what it could mean for his future.

"It was a really rough time for him," Vogelbach said. "That was a year he was really looking forward to and it ended, obviously, really early."

Driskel's path to the NFL and starting for the Detroit Lions on Sunday was circuitous. Once a sought-after high school recruit, he came back from his injury and didn't play as well as before. He was benched before transferring to Louisiana Tech for his final year of college football. It took nearly three seasons for him to start a game in the NFL.

Even when he signed with the Lions on Sept. 17, it was an afterthought -- the latest shuffling by general manager Bob Quinn of backup quarterbacks behind starter Matthew Stafford, who hadn't missed a game since the end of the 2010 season.

There was no reason to believe when Driskel signed he'd ever see a meaningful snap. Stafford had been playing well and is considered one of the toughest quarterbacks in the NFL. It would take a lot for Driskel to see a play, let alone a start.

Then Stafford took a hit in the fourth quarter against Oakland two weeks ago. He finished the game and went through the week of practice as if he would start -- until Saturday, when Stafford was ruled out.

Last Sunday morning, despite receiving few reps during the week, Driskel found out he'd be the starter.

"That's just been my mindset the whole time is, 'Hey, you could be called on at any time,'" Driskel said. "And be ready to go."

Driskel, in some ways, has been preparing for his current situation almost his entire career.

It started at Florida, where Driskel was often touted as the next Tim Tebow because they came from the same state, went to the same university and had a similar skill sets as runners and as passers. Driskel never discussed it much, but Tebow's legacy was evident -- a statue was built to honor him in 2011, months after Driskel stepped on campus.

Driskel always tried to remain himself, whether it was frog gigging or airboating in his free time. Florida was tough on him, though he did meet his wife, Tarin, there.

"I learned you have to be able to come back from rough times, because I definitely had them there," Driskel said. "With not playing so well, getting benched and overcoming injuries ... you have to keep moving forward and learning.

"Don't put your head in the dirt, but learn from your mistakes and don't be afraid to fail."

Getting a foothold in the NFL took some time. He was cut by San Francisco in September 2016 and claimed by Cincinnati. He missed almost all of 2017 and then replaced Andy Dalton after Dalton was injured in November 2018. Starting five games, Driskel went 1-4 with 1,003 yards, six touchdowns and two interceptions.

Cincinnati cut him in September. Detroit signed him a week later and less than two months after that, he had to be the guy to replace the guy again -- this time filling in for an injured Stafford against the Chicago Bears.

When Vogelbach got the call that his best friend was starting, he tried to figure out if he could get a ticket to Chicago and to the game. With a few hours' notice, it was impossible -- even for a player who became an All-Star for the Seattle Mariners this year. Vogelbach started reaching out to their close group of friends.

Jered Goodwin, Driskel's high school baseball coach, happened to be close by. A lifelong Packers fan, he was at Green Bay's Lambeau Field, taking his wife there for the first time. Had he been alone, he might have changed his plans and driven to Soldier Field. Instead, he found himself in Lambeau early, staring at one of the Jumbotrons before the 4:25 Panthers-Packers game kicked off.

"I got to watch that one," Goodwin said of the Lions-Bears game. "Pretty much the whole fourth quarter on one screen in Lambeau."

He might have been the only person in Lambeau rooting for the Lions last Sunday, watching Driskel complete 27 of 46 passes for 269 yards, a touchdown and an interception in a 20-13 loss.

Vogelbach said is not easy to watch games with him when Driskel is playing. He gets intense. People know not to talk to Vogelbach because he gets "more nervous and more psyched up than I do to play my own games."

Vogelbach will be a wreck on Sunday. He's planning on making the trip to Detroit when the Lions face the Dallas Cowboys (1 p.m. ET, FOX). He understands what his friend went through to reach this point.

"A lot of people never thought Jeff would be taking snaps at quarterback in the NFL," Vogelbach said. "And it's just pretty cool how he's really stuck to himself and put his head down. ... We always had people who would doubt us. He always had people he would hear that said he wouldn't play in the NFL.

"It's pretty cool. I know how much it means to him."