On paper, Jeff Driskel lives the charmed college jock life.
He was a five-star prospect coming out of high school, he’s the starting quarterback at a major SEC university and he has the cheerleader girlfriend.
Life seems pretty sweet, but that hasn’t exactly been the case.
Despite Florida going an unexpected 11-2 with its first BCS bowl experience since 2009, Driskel received more backlash than high fives during his first season as the Gators’ starter, with schizophrenic play that made him arguably the league’s most perplexing player.
“When you’re a quarterback at a big university, you’re going to get too much credit when you play well and you’re going to get a lot of scrutiny when you don’t play well,” Driskel told ESPN.com in a phone interview earlier this week. “It comes with it, and you can’t let that bother you.”
Driskel says he didn’t let the negativity rattle him, but the internal pressure he put on himself -- thanks to the constant battle with classmate Jacoby Brissett -- did. Driskel said he spent the better part of 2012 looking over his shoulder, waiting for Brissett to take that critical step past him.
Driskel insists his confidence never wavered, but he worried about losing his spot when he made mistakes. Even after Driskel was officially named the starter after splitting reps with Brissett during the season opener, he still worried about his job security, shaking his focus.
“You make a bad play, like throwing an interception in practice, you’re definitely thinking about that,” Driskel said.
Now, Brissett has taken his game to NC State, and as the Gators dive into spring practice, Driskel is no longer feeling the heat of competition. He finally feels like he’s the guy and can take the next steps in his development as a starter.
“It’s definitely my team, and I have to take over and be that leader,” he said.
“Now, I can play free and faster and not have to worry about making mistakes and worry more about making good plays.”
In order to make those plays, Driskel has realized that he has to take off-field work more seriously.
Driskel said he never thought playing quarterback required the heavy amount of studying needed to understand the game. In high school, he was a one-man show because of his athleticism, but that didn’t work in 2012. He admitted to being underprepared because he thought games would come naturally. Things were much faster than expected, and his play suffered because he didn’t take the time needed during the week to meticulously dissect film of opponents, his teammates or himself.
Driskel’s lack of preparation led to a mediocre statistical season (137.2 passing yards per game and 12 touchdowns with five interceptions) and forced players to lose trust in him.
After Florida’s embarrassing Sugar Bowl loss to Louisville, Driskel decided to change his preparation habits. He’s now burying himself in his playbook and locking himself away in the film room when he’s not out throwing with receivers and breaking down every little detail of every play with them, including how they should be running their routes.
“Jeff's really attacked the offseason from a mental standpoint as far as film is concerned and studying what he can do to be a better quarterback,” coach Will Muschamp said. “That's part of the maturation process in becoming a better player; understanding what you've got to do to be successful.”
Offensive coordinator Brent Pease is helping him find ways to get rid of the ball faster and go through his progressions. Check-downs and sacks were major issues for Driskel last year because he didn’t read defenses well and didn’t know where and how they were going to attack him, he said. His indecision helped Florida give up 39 sacks and caused many ill-advised passes.
But people around the program expect 2013 to be better for Driskel. He’s finally working with the same offensive coordinator in back-to-back years, his offensive line should be tougher and stronger and things should slow down considerably.
The next step is developing a young, inexperienced receiving corps. Only five healthy receivers are on campus now, and five true freshmen will be taking reps this fall. Youth can be scary, but an advantage Driskel will have is that they’ll have no choice but to trust and follow him. They’ll be too green not to listen to him or the coaches, a luxury he didn’t have last year.
Driskel has now become the most important offensive entity at Florida, and he says he’s comfortable with that. His confidence is growing, and he’ll finally be responsible for all the first-team reps.
He’s still a work in progress, but it sounds like the wide-eyed, mistake-prone starter from a year ago is seeing things more clearly.
“Now that I’ve been through a season and I know what it takes to prepare to be able to perform, it’s going to be a big difference,” he said. “I’ll be ready this year.”
“I gotta be a vocal leader, and I have to show up and make plays.