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Freshman quarterback Jeff Driskel lands on big stage for Florida Gators

Jeff Driskel is likely to join Wayne Peace, Donald Douglas, Jesse Palmer and Chris Leak as the only true freshmen quarterbacks to start for UF.

Associated Press

Jeff Driskel is likely to join Wayne Peace, Donald Douglas, Jesse Palmer and Chris Leak as the only true freshmen quarterbacks to start for UF.

Jeff Driskel was a 14-year-old high school freshman when he arrived at Oviedo Hagerty High just as the school was starting a varsity football program.

After a quick assessment of his talent, varsity coach Nate Gierke was certain Driskel would be the starting freshman team quarterback. But that plan never materialized. Two games into his freshman year, Driskel was named the Huskies' starting varsity quarterback. Four years later, he left with 4,844 passing yards and 36 touchdowns.

"He came in and blew us away with not only obviously his physical skills, but how mature he was being a 14-year-old kid, jumping in there and playing at the varsity level," Gierke said. "He handled that probably better than any freshman that I've ever coached that's played at that level."

Gierke is hoping that experience and Driskel's maturity will be a major benefit for him, at least in some small way, when No. 17 Florida plays at No. 1 LSU today. The 18-year-old freshman could be making his first collegiate start at Tiger Stadium, which is expected to have a capacity crowd of 92,400. Driskel, who is replacing injured starter John Brantley, has played a limited role in four games this season.

"I don't know if any freshman is truly ready for this," Gierke said. "To have your first start be in this kind of environment is really tough for anybody. I think Jeff's mental makeup will allow him to handle the situation pretty well. He's very mature for his age, and I think a lot of that comes from his parents. His dad was in the Navy; they instilled him with a great set of values and a work ethic that's allowed him to be successful here and at the college level."

This is the worst-case scenario Florida coach Will Muschamp and offensive coordinator Charlie Weis envisioned, which is why they insisted Driskel get playing time early this season.

"Purposefully as we worked into the season and the first ball game, that's why we wanted to play him and play him as much as we could as far as the season continued to evolve," Muschamp said. " … I think that him having played before, been in the fire before, certainly will help him on game day."

On Monday, Muschamp named Driskel the starter, but he later said all three healthy quarterbacks, including Tyler Murphy and Jacoby Brissett, would be in this week's practice rotation, and a starter would be named by kickoff. Driskel sustained an ankle injury against Alabama, but Muschamp dismissed it as nothing serious.

Driskel is the only one with experience. Murphy is a 19-year-old redshirt freshman. Brissett is an 18-year-old true freshman. Neither has played at the collegiate level.

"I'm not a quarterback and I'm not in their head, but I can't imagine it's going to be an easy experience at all," UF redshirt senior center Dan Wenger said. "But I think if we all just have his back and have confidence in him, I think he'll do all right."

While Driskel lacks experience, he brings an added dimension to the Gators. At 6 feet 4, 235 pounds, he runs a 4.55-second 40-yard dash and isn't afraid to get out of the pocket and run.

"He has a strong arm, and when things are going bad, he always can get away with his legs, and that's one thing that he brings to the offense that Johnny B. couldn't," UF receiver Andre Debose said. "We have the ultimate confidence in Driskel. I really feel like he can get the job done."

Of course, he'll have to get it done today against the SEC's No. 2 defense. But he won't do it alone, his teammates said.

"With him being young and never in this position before, it's up to everybody on this team to help," left tackle Chaz Green said. "There's extra pressure, so as a team we all need to step our game up."

Antonya English can be reached at english@sptimes.com.

Freshman quarterback Jeff Driskel lands on big stage for Florida Gators 10/07/11 [Last modified: Friday, October 7, 2011 9:53pm]
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