GAINESVILLE — It was supposed to be the challenge of a lifetime for a freshman quarterback, but the week leading into last year's LSU game quickly went from golden opportunity to major disappointment for Florida's Jeff Driskel.
As the backup to senior starter John Brantley, Driskel was set to start against LSU last October, but an ankle injury in the previous game against Alabama derailed that plan.
"I was in the training room all day long, trying to get back, doing whatever I could," Driskel said this week. "But there was just not enough time. An injury like a sprained ankle takes time. They did all they could, and I did get better each and every day, but I just wasn't ready to go."
So instead of testing himself against the then-No. 1 team in the nation, Driskel stood with an aching, taped ankle and watched the Gators' 41-11 loss.
"Nobody likes being sidelined and not being able to dress for games," Driskel said. "…So I'm excited to get this opportunity and we'll be ready to go."
It is an opportunity he earned the hard way.
After the injury he played in just one more game, Auburn, the remainder of the 2011 season. He then battled Jacoby Brissett throughout the spring, summer and fall camp before earning the starting job during the opener against Bowling Green.
When No. 10 Florida hosts No. 4 LSU Saturday at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, Driskel will have a tad more experience — three starts — than he would have had last season against the Tigers, but coaches and teammates said he has proven he's up to the task.
"We have a lot confidence in him," center Jonotthan Harrison said. "He can make a play either with his arm or with his feet. That's why we have so much confidence in him. He will make a play somehow. As long as we do our job and protect him up front, then we're going to have a great game."
Driskel made his first career start at Texas A&M, and led come-from-behind victories against the Aggies and Tennessee — both on the road. He has been effective as a passer and runner.
"Jeff Driskel seems to get better with each throw," LSU coach Les Miles said.
He is 55-of-79 for 698 yards and four touchdowns, and is second on the team in rushing with 148 yards. He has had nine runs of 10 or more yards, second behind senior running back Mike Gillislee. Offensive coordinator Brent Pease said there's no doubt the 19-year-old is equipped to handle this game because of the key improvements he has made.
"I think one (improvement) is just his understanding of being a quarterback and what he has to do per play," Pease said. "I just think his knowledge has gotten a lot better."
"He really is a mature guy," Harrison added. "We love what we're seeing out of him. He's been in some tough situations, even playing Tennessee on the road. … In the huddle, he makes sure he has everyone's attention before he even starts reading the play. He just gives us that little confidence boost like, 'Let's go. Let's get up to the ball. Let's get it done.' "
Driskel wants to help erase the memory of last season's LSU loss. Not much else matters this week.
"I don't know how many hours, I just know a lot of my time will be spent in that film room," Driskel said.
What the Gators want most from Driskel is for him to be, well, Jeff Driskel.
"I think Jeff needs to be Jeff, we don't need any superhuman effort out here," coach Will Muschamp said. "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."
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected]