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  1. Sports

In face of critics, Gators' Jeff Driskel sees opportunity

GAINESVILLE — Jeff Driskel stepped onto the podium for his weekly news conference, smiled and took a deep breath.

"It's a new week," he said. "Thank goodness it's a new week."

New week, new opportunity to get the critics off his back.

For the Gators' redshirt junior quarterback, the past two weeks have not been easy. After his performance in a 42-21 loss at Alabama (9-of-28 for 93 yards and two interceptions), Driskel had a bye week to bear the brunt of UF fans' growing frustrations.

And vent, they did. From former players to fans and media came criticism and calls for Driskel to be replaced by freshman Treon Harris. Exacerbating the situation is two quarterbacks who left the program because they were behind Driskel on the depth chart — Jacoby Brissett and Tyler Murphy — are each having success this season at North Carolina State and Boston College, respectively.

Harris threw two passes for two touchdowns in the Sept. 6 opener and hasn't been seen since. Driskel was even criticized for how he spent his weekend off after a photo emerged of him tailgating with his family at young brother Jason's game at Florida Atlantic in Boca Raton on Saturday.

Driskel's taking it all in stride. He said he knows the critics come with the territory.

"There's a lot out there, so you can't really shield yourself from all of it," he said. "That's just part of playing quarterback here. I've never been one where that stuff gets to me, whether people are saying 'you're the best' or people saying 'you're the worst.' So you've just got to be even-keeled and keep moving forward. But there's a lot out there. … I'm grown. I can handle it."

Driskel, 22, has a 111.14 pass efficiency rating (not among the top 10 in the SEC), has completed 56 percent and is ninth in the league in passing average per game.

The Gators are heading to Knoxville on Saturday for a critical SEC East game and they desperately need Driskel to play better.

"We've got to be more productive in the passing game," offensive coordinator Kurt Roper said. "I think that's the biggest issue. Even in that (Alabama) game we had some production in the run game. We've got to get more productive in the pass game."

Driskel, who suffered his season-ending injury last year against Tennessee, said he knows where his deficiencies are and spent the week correcting them.

"During the bye week it was more working on ourselves than scout team looks, so I think we got a lot of good-on-good action, and I think that helps out a lot when you see a higher level of competition," he said. "We really didn't do too much differently, trying to home in on some route concepts, make sure we know what we're doing, make sure we are getting our eyes to the right spots and we're looking at signals."

Roper said it will help Driskel if the Gators can stay out of third-and-long situations. Florida is 34 percent (17-for-50) on third-down conversions, and Tennessee leads the nation in third-down defense — allowing just 11 of 53 attempts.

"It's not just him," Roper said. "It's all around. It's me as a playcaller, it's him as a decisionmaker, it's just the route running, all of it together we've just got to get better at. I think if we'll minimize the third-and-longs, then we can make more good first and 10 decisions on third down.

Coach Will Muschamp is adamant that the growing criticism of Driskel is unfair, and he is standing behind his quarterback. Muschamp acknowledged Driskel's need for improvement, but for now he's staking Saturday's game — and this season — on his veteran.

"I don't know if physically or mentally there's any tougher kid that I've been around," Muschamp said. "He takes the heat and understands that comes with the territory. He's about all the right things, and I think will continue to move forward this season. He'll make the Gator Nation proud he's their quarterback."

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