Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Colleges

'Great respect' runs in family for Gators' Driskel

GAINESVILLE

The severe pain in his stomach came from out of nowhere in the early afternoon nearly two weeks ago. His roommate gave him a preliminary, amateur, diagnosis before he even visited a doctor.

Had Jeff Driskel ignored the pain and his roommate's advice, it might have turned out much worse. Instead, three days before Florida began fall camp Aug. 2, the starting quarterback had an appendectomy that kept him out for the first six days.

He returned to practice Thursday. Had it happened last August, the surgery might have altered his season — and the program.

But not this season.

Because one year after winning the starting job over Jacoby Brissett in a heated battle that lingered into the first game of the season, Driskel is the Gators' undisputed leader. And he's not shying away from that responsibility. In fact, he's embracing it.

"The quarterback has to be the leader of the team," Driskel, a junior, said. "Not just the offense, but the whole team. I can't really describe it more than that. I'm the leader. I'm the guy everyone's going to have to look to, and I'm excited to fill that role."

Driskel has taken ownership of the demands that go with being the most visible player at a major SEC football program. He's demanding more dedication and insisting on a stronger work ethic from teammates. They are responding.

"I think Jeff's got great respect … by his teammates," Florida coach Will Muschamp said. "The job he did this summer with our football team and the feedback that I've gotten from our players in camp is what a great job he did with our football team.

"You talk to each, especially offensive players, and most of the defensive guys. To a man, they know this is his football team. So I think you earn that respect. It's not something that's taken lightly or given to you."

Driskel spent the majority of last season on-the job training in first-year offensive coordinator Brent Pease's system. There wasn't much opportunity to lead. Now he's coming into his own.

"He's not afraid to step up and say something," Pease said. "I think when you get a kid who becomes vocalized in a good way and demonstrates that and talks to his teammates and challenges and encourages them, you know he's taken the next step because he's earned some respect."

When he organized summer meetings and workouts, attendance was 100 percent with the exception of an excused absence. During the offseason, he worked to develop his leadership skills.

"He's matured, and he's really grown into being a leader," senior right tackle Jon Halapio said. "And I think that's what we were missing; that vocal leader on offense. I've really seen him grow this summer, and he's been that leader that we really needed on offense. He runs to huddles. He's calling the plays. We need that leadership from our quarterback, and Jeff's been doing a good job."

Said senior receiver Trey Burton: "He definitely put all of us on his shoulders, and he's trying to carry us."

Driskel, who is majoring in sports management, said he won't let the missed time in camp diminish the work he has put in. It's too important. Not just to him, but the Gators.

"We're really excited with what we did in the summer," Driskel said. "And we're ready for it to show up this fall."

• • •

Today, football is Driskel's first love. It wasn't always.

Jerry Driskel, Jeff's father, is a former Orlando Colonial High baseball player who served 20 years in the U.S. Navy. Jerry signed his oldest of two sons up for T-ball at age 5 and watched as he excelled immediately. The family was stationed in Japan during Jerry's final three years in the Navy. There, Jeff honed his baseball skills and learned what it meant to love and respect the game.

Because Driskel was on his way to becoming the 6-foot-4, 237-pound man he is today, he towered over most of the Japanese children his age. At 7, he was playing with the 12-year-olds in Japan.

"They called him 'Godzilla' over there," Jerry Driskel said.

The Driskel family moved to the Orlando area when Jeff was 10, and he joined Pop Warner football. Two games into his ninth-grade year, he was named the starter at Hagerty High.

"You hear the cliche that he wants to win at everything, but that's basically what it is with him," Jerry Driskel said. "He wants to win at everything. He wants to be in charge. He wants to make sure everybody's doing the right thing. And I wouldn't say doing things his way, but the right way."

After earning national high school player of the year accolades and amassing 4,844 passing yards and 36 touchdowns (1,333 rushing his senior season), Driskel graduated early and enrolled at Florida in January 2011 — bypassing his senior baseball season.

In June, he was drafted by the Red Sox in the 29th round of the baseball draft but insists his heart is with football and the Gators.

"If I ever do play baseball again, it'll be with the Red Sox," he said.

• • •

Driskel saw action in five games as a freshman in 2011. His first season as a full-time starter, 2012, produced 11 wins but not overly impressive stats. UF's offense was 103rd among 120 Division I-A teams with 334.4 yards per game. Driskel was 95th with 13 completions per game and 99th with 137.2 passing yards per game.

He's well aware those numbers have to improve, which is why he and the Gators' receivers spent so much time this summer working on the passing game.

"We're going to have to throw the ball more," he said. "We're going to have to be more efficient throwing the ball. We're going to have to hit more big plays."

• • •

Twenty days before the start of the season, Driskel is in a role for which he has been training his entire life. Being born into a Navy family, discipline and leadership have always been stressed.

"I was in the Navy. My dad was in the Navy, so obviously, discipline was there," Jerry Driskel said. "If you have discipline, you can be a leader. Coming from a military background, you're kind of built to be a leader. It's just the reality of it."

It's one reason he's proud, but not surprised, by how well his son has handled the spotlight without running into trouble.

"I would say that's just being a good citizen," said Jerry Driskel, whose other son, Jason, 16, also is a quarterback and committed to Florida Atlantic last month. "Sports will come and go, but you have to be a good citizen first. That's the way we brought both of our kids up."

In one year, Driskel has gone from the guy in the quarterback battle to the one on regional covers of national magazines. He was among the SEC quarterbacks who helped at the Manning Passing Academy last month. He led the Gator players' contingent at SEC media days in July and has had preseason photo shoots with CBS and ESPN.

Yet Driskel takes great pride in being the same guy he was when he arrived in Gainesville. His Twitter photos are generally eating with teammates or hanging out with his girlfriend, Florida cheerleader Tarin Moses. He still loves to fish and hunt. Most of all, he still loves football.

"I've been more recognizable, but that comes with it when you're the starting quarterback at Florida," he said. "There are so many Gator fans out there that live and die by it, so it just comes with the territory. But I haven't changed. I'm not going to change. I have to just be me."

Antonya English can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at @TBTimes_Gators.

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