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Driskel thrives in return as Gators' QB

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- At some point before he took the field for Florida's season opener last Saturday, Jeff Driskel gathered the rest of the Gators' quarterbacks and acknowledged his personal comeback story.

"Guys," he said, "I haven't taken a hit in almost a year."

Florida snapped a seven-game losing streak Saturday, winning for the first time in 335 days. Driskel, the Gators' starting quarterback and most important player, took a game snap for the first time in 349 days.

It was a little strange, he said, to play again after waiting for so long. He broke a bone in his leg early in the third game of last season -- Sept. 21, 2013, to be exact.

There was an arduous rehab and a tumultuous winter that saw the hire of his third offensive coordinator in three years.

Kurt Roper brought a new offense -- a dynamic, uptempo spread that promised to be a perfect fit for Driskel, who put up video-game numbers in a similar system at Hagerty High School in Oviedo, Fla., on his way to becoming the No. 1 quarterback prospect in the nation in 2010.

Once healthy in the spring, Driskel fulfilled that promise of fitting the offense to a tee. The offense was installed and then refined in preseason camp, where Driskel said "game speed" reps helped him to prepare for his return to action.

"It wasn't a shock the first time back out there," he said, downplaying any thoughts of last year or any feelings that might have welled up as he ran onto the field with his teammates again. "I think playing quarterback you've got to play without emotion. You try and play with energy, not emotion.

"That's what I've been trying to do, just stay even-keeled. I think that I'm doing a pretty good job of doing that."

He also did a pretty good job of running the Gators' new offense in a 65-0 romp against Eastern Michigan.

Driskel, who exited the game after three quarters, smashed his previous career-highs with 45 passes thrown and 31 completions, hitting 69 percent of his attempts.

Those 31 completions were also the most for any Florida QB since Tim Tebow had 31 in a 2009 Sugar Bowl win against Cincinnati.

"I thought Jeff threw the ball extremely well," UF coach Will Muschamp said. "You saw what I've referenced as far as his command and comfort with where we are."

Driskel threw for 248 yards, the second-highest total in his career, and spread the ball around to 10 different targets. His favorite receiver on the day was senior wideout Quinton Dunbar, with whom Driskel connected five times for 81 yards.

"I'm proud of Jeff," said Dunbar, who reeled in Driskel's longest pass of the day -- a 42-yarder -- early in the second quarter. "The hard work is showing now.

"This is only the beginning. We're going to continue to get better and keep showing the world what we're capable of doing."

The fate of Florida's offense, if not its season, is inextricably linked to Driskel. Keeping the junior QB healthy is a major priority, as evidenced by the fact that Driskel didn't run the ball once in the opener.

The Gators will certainly make use of Driskel's dual-threat ability at some point this season. After all, he has great mobility and a career average of 6.9 yards per carry. The run-option was a particular strength of Florida's offense in 2012.

"We asked him to protect himself in some situations," Muschamp acknowledged Saturday. "That's what we're going to do in those situations. He needs to be smart and protect himself. As I've said before, [it's] difficult for him because he's a competitive young man."

Competitive and confident.

Driskel made a point of noting that he and his teammates were confident in the new offense before they took the field and routed Eastern Michigan. Now that he's back, the team has returned to its winning ways.

"Our performance today kind of backed that up," he said. "We have a lot of playmakers all over the field, and if we continue to execute like we did today we're going to be tough to beat."