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Florida Gators 2013 Positional Preview: Quarterback, where Jeff Driskel is fighting ghosts

Jeff Driskel stands in the shadows of previous Florida quarterbacks. Can he come into his own for the Gators?

Sam Greenwood

We kick off our post-spring look at Florida's 2013 football roster on a position-by-position basis with the most important position on the field: Quarterback.

The Lyric

"Hov got flows, though he's no Big and 'Pac, but he's close"
How I'm 'posed to win? They got me fightin' ghosts

Jay-Z, "Grammy Family Freestyle"

The Narrative

Jeff Driskel's plight is one unique to Florida quarterbacks, and born of trying to meet two different sets of expectations for his play. The latter set, which comes from Florida fans, is truly the less important one — but it matters more to us.

Florida has had, essentially, eight starting quarterbacks since Steve Spurrier's arrival in 1990: Shane Matthews, Danny Wuerffel, Doug Johnson, Rex Grossman, Chris Leak, Tim Tebow, John Brantley, and Jeff Driskel. (Terry Dean, Jesse Palmer, Ingle Martin, and Jacoby Brissett were also starters, but not "starting quarterbacks," if you get my drift.) Five of those eight won SEC titles; a different subset of five made NFL starts; three of eight signal-callers won national championships; two won the Heisman Trophy, and both will eventually be College Football Hall of Famers; one got jobbed out of a Heisman, and helped his team to a Super Bowl.

More importantly to Florida fans, the first seven names on that list, even Brantley, knew how to throw the ball around the field and make exciting things happen in the passing game. The jury is still out on Jeff Driskel.

Driskel's longest completion last year was a 75-yard touchdown pass to Frankie Hammond Jr. against Tennessee that traveled about seven yards in the air. His second-longest completion was a bomb to Omarius Hines against Kentucky that was as close to 500 as I've seen in a college football game. His third-longest completion was another pass to Hammond for a catch-and-run touchdown against Bowling Green. His fourth-longest completion was a screen pass to Mike Gillislee taken for a touchdown. Two other long pass plays were called back for penalties in the backfield.

Not all of that is Driskel's fault, of course: Florida's pass protection has been inconsistent at best in his tenure at the helm of the offense, and the Gators' wide receivers corps was without a go-to field-stretcher in 2012. But just as quarterbacks receive too much of the credit when they win, they receive too much of the blame when things go awry, and the disastrous Sugar Bowl loss that began with a tipped Driskel pick is remembered more for that and less for the bad route and bobble that helped produce it.

Driskel should have a better, deeper line in front of him and more and better wide receivers on his flanks in 2013, and he will also have the peace of mind that comes from having no clear threat to his starting role. And fans will largely hope that means Driskel can return Florida to the pass-happy Gators of a halcyon era that endures the eternal autumn of the Florida fan psyche.

It may pain Florida fans to realize and accept that Will Muschamp would probably be overjoyed with a slightly better Driskel than he got in 2012. Muschamp, like his mentor Nick Saban, wants to rely on a running game for ball control, and dominate on offense through balanced excellence from the running and passing games. This is why Alabama has aimed for 200 yards both rushing and passing for years now, and why Driskel may be better suited for Muschamp's ideal offense than Florida fans' dream attack.

What Driskel lacks in arm strength or decision-making as a thrower, he compensates for as an inventive and dangerous runner. Few athletes at 6'4" and 230-plus pounds are able to evade like Driskel is, but few quarterbacks have played behind leaky offensive lines for as long as Driskel has, given that his high school years were spent piloting a brand new (Oviedo) Hagerty High program from birth to a playoff berth and his freshman and sophomore years at Florida were spent ducking SEC defenders thanks to the Gators' leaky line.

Driskel's ability to reach top speed in a few steps was quietly the most exciting thing about his play in 2012, and permitted him to run for yardage in the open field time and again, most memorably against Tennessee, Vanderbilt, and Florida State. If Brent Pease continues to add elements of the pistol to his offense, Driskel may get even more potent as its trigger — and Driskel may become the sort of runner who can hold defenses in check from behind the line of scrimmage, much as Tebow did with his rocker-step play action, opening things up in the passing game.

Another thing Driskel did very well for the most part in 2012 was avoid turnovers: In Florida's 10 wins with Driskel as a starter, he threw just one interception on 198 pass attempts, for a microscopic 0.5 percent interception rate. That kind of ball security, which was rooted largely in an unwillingness to make bad throws, is tremendous, and was critical for a Florida offense that sometimes did good work by gaining a few yards and punting.

But Driskel threw four picks on 56 passes (7.1 percent interception rate) in losses against Georgia and Louisville, and all four were crippling: His first against Georgia cost Florida at least three offensive points; his second against Georgia led to a field goal; his first against Louisville was returned for a touchdown; his second against Louisville cost at least a field goal. For someone who threw five interceptions all season and had a fantastic 1.7 percent interception rate, Driskel certainly managed to make all of his picks hurt Florida deeply.

If Driskel can get better protection and better play from his wide receivers, continue to develop as a runner, and maintain a low interception rate (and turnover rate: Driskel's fumbles against Georgia and Florida State were both costly), then he can certainly lead Florida to 10 or more wins that would satisfy Muschamp and revitalize a passing attack that would satiate Gators fans. As it currently stands, that's a big if.

The Projected 2013 Depth Chart

Class Measurements 2012
Jeff Driskel Junior 6'4", 236 pounds 1,646 yards, 63.7% completions
Skyler Mornhinweg Redshirt Freshman 6'2", 208 pounds Scout team quarterback
Tyler Murphy Redshirt Junior 6'2", 206 pounds Scout team quarterback
Jacob Guy Redshirt Freshman 6'5", 210 pounds Redshirted
Max Staver Freshman 6'5", 238 pounds High school senior
Chris Wilkes Freshman 6'4", 235 pounds 2-7, 3.38 ERA in minors

The Depth Chart Overview

Florida has rebuilt its depth, which has been lacking since Urban Meyer's departure, but remains terrifyingly thin at quarterback, even more so than in 2011, when brittle senior Brantley gave way to Driskel and Brissett on more than one occasion, and in 2012, when Driskel's injury forced Brissett to start against Jacksonville State. In those two years, Florida had two four-star recruits and a four-star recruit who had started as a true freshman behind its starter, respectively. In 2013, Florida will have no players better than a three-star recruit behind Driskel — and none of the five quarterbacks on the depth chart behind Driskel will have taken a collegiate snap.

That likely makes backup quarterback the single most troublesome spot on the entire Florida roster, and will make building leads that facilitate the removal of Driskel and the on-field development of Skyler Mornhinweg, Tyler Murphy, Max Staver, and Chris Wilkes a necessity. Florida's schedule, which features a Toledo team that went 9-4 in 2012 and a road date with a Miami squad that will be looking to knock off its in-state rival in its first two weeks, is unlikely to make garbage time easily achievable.

I have minimal confidence in the ability of any non-Driskel Florida quarterbacks to win a game, but I could talk myself into Mornhinweg or Murphy doing enough to avoid a loss. I'll be hoping all year that I don't have to do that.

The Far Future

Driskel is unlikely to leave for the NFL after the 2013 season, despite being draft-eligible. His stock is not high after an effective and unspectacular 2012 and his mechanics (a long wind-up, mostly) and arm strength are not ideal for the NFL level. He should be Florida's starter as a senior in 2014.

Behind Driskel, Murphy has two years of eligibility remaining, and is unlikely to wrest the starting role from Driskel; accordingly, the focus should be on developing Mornhinweg, Staver, and Wilkes in 2013, as all three players still have four years of eligibility remaining. If at least one of the three can emerge as a reliable backup, Florida will have successfully produced as much of a post-Driskel as it needs to, as 2014 commitment Will Grier is regarded as one of the nation's best quarterback prospects, and should be ready to compete for a starting job in 2015 after redshirting in 2014.

The 2013 Outlook

Driskel has ample physical gifts, and an innate sense of how to play football: These two things were enough to help Florida's offense do just enough for 10 wins under Driskel's command in 2012. But Florida's defense was better in 2012 than it will be in 2013, and Florida's turnover margin will almost certainly regress to the mean, and Florida's schedule features tough SEC road games at LSU and South Carolina.

I have faith in Driskel's ability to improve as a quarterback, but I have faith that nearly any football player whose physical tools outstrip mental development can learn the game enough to make use of those tools. Driskel has been saying all the right things about studying the playbook, too, despite the tacit admission that he was not doing that in 2012.

I think he does improve, and starts at least 11 games for a team that wins at least 10 games, compiling over 2,500 passing yards and over 500 rushing yards. But I also think his margin for error — whether that error is a critical mistake in a big game or an ill-advised attempt to stay in bounds that produces an injury — is quite small, and that there is no more important player on the field. The difference between Driskel being good and Driskel being great is probably the difference between nine and 10 or 11 wins. The difference between Driskel being bad or hurt and Driskel being good is the difference between seven and nine wins.

If Driskel does the good things I think he can do, his 2013 should be very bright: He has all the talent in the world, as much or more than all seven of his recent predecessors as Florida's starting quarterback. The best-case scenario for this Florida team is a national championship, and Driskel, at his best, could be the reason the Gators win it. That would certainly establish his place in the pantheon of Florida quarterbacks. If Driskel's 2013 is instead marked by the bad things he does haunting the Gators, it may be a nightmare.

The best case, in this case, is more likely.