Going into this past weekend, everyone in Gator Nation was expecting a possible breakout performance from Jeff Driskel — just as they were going into 2013, or into Miami.
The coaching staff was surely trying to sort out the offense's issues with turnovers and shore up a better percentage inside the 20-yard line; we were looking forward to seeing more bombs flicking off of Driskel's fingertips, stretching the field vertically to the likes of Solomon Patton, Quinton Dunbar, Trey Burton, and others. After two games and an entire season in 2012, we expected to see progress from Driskel's ability to read the defense and adjust the offense accordingly. There was so much promise and potential that seemed to be just out of reach, and thus so much hope that Driskel could grasp a firm hold of in the imminent future.
Until the play in which the 2013 season for the Gators took an unthinkable turn, it seemed that Driskel was primed to muster the type of offensive explosion against Tennessee we've been yearning for since the repressed loss back in January and beyond. Driskel began the game with more shots downfield, relative to other attempts in 2012 and the first two games of 2013: Three of his six throws traveled more than 10 yards in the air, and a fourth that should have was batted down at the line.
Will Muschamp and Brent Pease proceeded with their plan of unleashing Driskel's arm, but, honestly, there was this feeling I had that it just was not going to be sustainable, not this way. Maybe it was because Driskel just isn't ready. Maybe it was because he hadn't had a true showing of skill that didn't rely on another star to pickup the slack in the down times. Maybe it was the lingering feeling that a turnover was coming hanging over the crowd and blanketing the field like some type of supernatural, low-lying fog.
Then it happened, the worst-case scenario that Gator fans had dreaded and repressed accordingly: n interception turned around for an instant six points, as the offensive leader and starting quarterback goes down and out for the rest of the season as conference play finally gets started. Florida had fallen behind a rival that has had no business competing with the Gators on Florida Field, and given Tennesseee what seemed to be a kill shot at the time. It was a situation drawn straight out of the plot of Friday Night Lights. (Thankfully, Driskel won't have to rely on quad rugbyto feed his need for competition.)
As he feebly tried to return to his feet at midfield promptly waving over at the sideline conceding defeat, with the Tennessee defense congregating in the endzone in celebration, a wave of disbelief and shock flooded through the stands. Even those who had doubted Driskel and jokingly referred to the possiblity of backups entering the starting quarterback sweepstakes looked like they had been blindsided by the likes of Lawrence Taylor.
No one knew what would happen next.
Following the first turnover, where Kyle Christy uncharacteristically dropped a snap on the first punt of the game, the Gator defense tightened up to the vise-grip level that everyone had hoped for. This was the only thing that instilled any type of belief in even scraping by in a victory at home over a very weak Volunteer team under first-year coach Butch Jones.
At least until Tyler Murphy took the field.
The way in which he wrangled the thrashing alligator that was the Gators' offense took every single person that was watching by surprise. I say everyone because I think there is no way that Will Muschamp and Co. would have not had the redshirt junior in the game had they known he was capable of what he did on Saturday, especially following the events of two weeks ago in Miami. On the stat sheet, Murphy is credited with a turnover that is evident to be the fault of center Jon Harrison, meaning Murphy did his part in taking care of the football and showing the ability to do so without limiting production on offense, all while stepping onto the field without any expectation of playing legitimate minutes in his career as a Gator.
Murphy stretched out drives with quick thinking and improvisation, and the Gators experienced a large bump in their third down conversion rate after Murphy took over. His adjustments at the line of scrimmage to pick up blitzes, though they were a bit time-consuming and obviously going to be more difficult in a road environment, proved to be much more efficient than any pre-play adjustments we saw with Driskel (mainly referring to catastrophic blips in pass protection assignments that were exposed against Miami and Toledo).
Still, one of the main reasons Murphy has gotten as much praise as he had since the victory over Tennessee is his feel for the pocket and awareness of when he needs to tuck the ball and run or scramble and throw it away. Murphy left Tennessee defenders grasping nothing but air after his jersey slipped through their hands, and converted numerous third downs by both passing and running; most importantly, on several drives, Murphy put the Gators in position to score and did not take them out of it, allowing for opportunities for field goals rather than picks produced by desperate attempts to score touchdowns.
All of these new developments beg the question: Could Murphy's takeover of the offense and his previous lack of confidence from the coaches actually be a good thing for the Gators?
There was a noticeable difference in play-calling once he entered the game, shifting to many more spread offense looks than ever before with Driskel. The personnel seemed to benefit from this shift as well, with Solomon Patton breaking loose for a 52-yard TD reception off of a quick screen pass. Notably, the sheer volume of designed quarterback runs and Murphy's near-flawless execution and ability when running them could prove to be a sign of a shift in offensive philosophy. Murphy appears to have a runner's mentality once he tucks the ball down and scampers downfield, but he also displays the key feature of knowing when to go down with a slide or run out of bounds.
If you skim through his high school highlights, you'll notice these characteristics stand out quite boldly.
While Driskel was a threat with his feet, Murphy seems to be a bit shiftier, quicker and slightly more decisive in his running, a type of comparison I would relate to that between Mike Gillislee and Mack Brown. Driskel has a great arm, too, but Murphy's arm has already proven to be more than capable, especially coupled with his cerebral ability to read the defense.
One could argue that Driskel's involvement in Muschamp and Pease's pro-style attack has turned out to be a relatively unsuccessful attempt at pigeonholing a quarterback that belongs in an improvisation-based system. You could even venture to say that if Driskel was running similar plays to the plays drawn up for Murphy that he probably would have had more success as well, since they tend to take advantage of their athletic ability as quarterbacks; after all, both of these guys were specifically recruited by Urban Meyer as options for a spread offense.
In my opinion, the only reason that we didn't hear about Murphy and his ability before was his inability to run the type of pro-style offense Muschamp wanted to implement; it also seemed to have something to do with Driskel's potential as a pro-style quarterback, as the staff seemed to believe he had what it takes. That said, all of these issues with the Florida offense seem rooted in the continued push for pro-style offense while utilizing ill-suited personnel, almost a reverse situation from what happened with John Brantley in Meyer's ill-fated final season. (Remember Brantley running the option?) In a transition between two poles (spread and pro-style) there will always be a rough patch where adjustments must be made to accommodate existing personnel as time passes and the correct personnel for the system are recruited and developed.
Moving forward, it will be interesting to see if the play calling becomes a bit more "college" and a little less "pro," as the staff tries to tailor an offensive scheme to Murphy's skill set. A change like this could obviously be nothing but temporary, as Gainesville expects the arrival of the revered Will Grier, but, in the meantime, the spread offense we knew and loved from a few years back might be revived under the helm of Muschamp and Pease.
If this happens, look for a more exciting attack than before, and get used to No. 3 under center, as he just might help this juggernaut of a defense and the rest of the Gators on their trek towards Atlanta in December.