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As Florida begins fall practices, believe half of what you see

We have moved from talking season to lying season. But we can be honest about that.

University of Florida Football Practice
Yes, that is Jeff Driskel.
Set Number: X158533 TK1

Long ago, I used the metaphor Jay-Z employed in his legendary 2006 freestyle over Kanye’s “Grammy Family” beat — “How I’m ‘sposed to win, they got me fightin’ ghosts?” — to describe Jeff Driskel’s plight as a Florida quarterback asked to live up to the past greatness of Steve Spurrier, Danny Wuerffel, and Tim Tebow.

Today, I would like to use another of Beyonce’s husband’s lyrics, this one from “Ignorant Shit” off his 2007 album American Gangster, inspired by the movie of the same name.

They’re all actors, lookin’ at themselves in the mirror backwards
Can’t even face themselves, don’t fear no rappers
They’re all weirdos, DeNiros in practice
So don’t believe everythin’ your earlobe captures, it’s mostly backwards
Unless it happens to be as accurate as me
And everythin’ said in song you happen to see
Then? Actually, believe half of what you see
None of what you hear, even if it’s spat by me

The verse continues, with Jay amusingly threatening to give foes “wheels for legs” as a means of proving his own point, but those two quatrains are most of the point, as is the “It’s only entertainment!” he mockingly delivers as the song ends. For me, it’s up there with Kendrick Lamar’s “Real” as songs that deconstruct the idea of authenticity in rap, even if it’s now so old its reference to Don Imus was timely.

Somehow, this is about Jeff Driskel, too?

In 2012, with John Brantley having been the first lamb sacrificed at the altar of living up to Tebow, Driskel and Jacoby Brissett were coming off a season in which they both had fleeting moments of promise in spelling an injured Brantley, but Brissett’s larger number of them and his theoretical better fit for Charlie Weis’s offense made me think he was the more likely candidate to succeed Brantley at that offseason’s outset.

Then Weis left Florida to take one of the truly surreal job offers of recent college football history at Kansas — one of the few significant news stories I could genuinely have broken, having heard about it an hour or so prior to it being reported nationally from a randomly selected roommate who was close to Charlie Weis, Jr., then barely even a college student and now the co-offensive coordinator at Ole Miss — and reset the table, with Florida’s hiring of Brent Pease and his installation of a less boom-and-bust offense more to Will Muschamp’s liking making how Driskel and Brissett fit that offense more important than what they had done in the discarded one.

I watched enough practices in the run-up to that season to think that Driskel and Brissett were close on both talent and execution of the offense, and that Driskel might have been a tiny bit sharper; I remember writing and saying as much in posts and radio interviews back then.

But the 2012 season bore out a different truth, one that meant more: Driskel, both because he was faster than Brissett and a more natural scrambler and runner, was the one of the two who gave Florida a better chance to win behind an offensive line that could open holes for Mike Gillislee as a runner but struggled often in pass protection. (Florida gave up 39 sacks in 2012, which ranked No. 114 nationally.)

What I thought I knew — maybe what I knew I thought — as of August, based on my observations from practices, may have been right, but it became utterly meaningless by late September. Driskel was consistently fairly good, if rarely great, in 2012, but that was enough for him to make every start when healthy. For the most part, he made plays when necessary and avoided mistakes well, allowing Florida’s defense and Gillislee to do enough pounding on opponents for those Gators to win 11 games and come within Jordan Reed’s fumble against Georgia from an undefeated regular season. That effort also shunted Brissett to a backup role and then to a transfer to NC State.

Fast-forward a year to 2013, when I wrote the above-linked post about Driskel fighting ghosts. I had observed enough of Driskel over seeing him several times in open practices to really, sincerely believe that he had improved as a decision-maker and executor of Pease’s ideas to be primed for a big season. I had only seen a fraction of his practices, of course, and had just a year ago thought that he was only marginally better than Brissett in practices, but those observations plus mine from his 2012 season and my natural tendency toward optimism and the ingrained tendency in sports to believe in the development and forward progression of athletes all led me to believe in him.

Driskel, uh, did not have a big year in 2013.

He was efficient in a low-wattage win over Toledo and threw for more yards than you probably remember — 291, then the most by any Florida QB against a Power Five team since Tebow! — against Miami, but also threw two picks and had a fumble on that miserably hot day in the Gators’ loss to the Hurricanes. And then his season ended on a pick-six that also featured a broken leg against Tennessee, because, well, that kind of luck was just what followed Jeff Driskel around at Florida.

And yet, what I vividly remember thinking that day, after Tyler Murphy — and Florida’s defense, in Dominique Easley’s last game as a Gator, and a legendarily hapless Nathan Peterman — combined to produce yet another Florida win over the Vols, was simple: We’re screwed.

I tweeted that much, too:

This was, as will not surprise you if you read the replies to that tweet — or remember that Driskel’s injury was cheered later that night at a bar in downtown Gainesville — not a popular position.

But it was one that I grounded in other observations from previous practices and spring games.

Hell, I wrote this in June 2013, in response to a question about a potential Driskel injury:

The easy answer is bad. The hard, unpalatable answer: Florida might go from being a national championship contender to struggling to make a bowl.

We no longer have the comments from that post to assess the reception to that sentiment, but I suspect it was not met with clamoring applause. If anything, though, I wasn’t pessimistic enough — because in that post, I set the floor for Florida’s 2013 season with a season-opening for Driskel at 7-5.

Obviously, that didn’t happen, with Murphy playing surprisingly well against Kentucky and Arkansas, then sputtering and getting hurt against Missouri — which I also realized in real time was the doomsday scenario post-Driskel injury — and leaving Florida to wring as much out of a one-winged Murphy and the overmatched Skyler Mornhinweg as it could, which turned out to be zero wins and many painful losses in a 4-8 campaign.

The point here is not to pat myself on the back. It’s actually the opposite: Despite having accurately sussed out that Florida had little to no competency behind Driskel at QB, I spent the run-up to the 2013 season thinking more about Driskel’s potential than the potential disaster lurking if he got hurt.

There were a lot of reasons for that. I’d probably put that inclination to optimism first, with stuff like the concept of “selling sunshine” — presenting people, sports fans especially, with content that flatters their confirmation biases, something I consciously try not to do but often cannot avoid — or the recency bias of seeing good work from Driskel in practices after his poor showing in the Sugar Bowl against Louisville buried deeper in the mix. But the foundation of that optimism was in part that recency bias, and I wasn’t the only person who saw or wished for a better, more confident Driskel in 2013.

I think, to this day, that many of us Florida fans overreacted to what happened in 2013 because we calibrated our expectations prior to the season and did not recalibrate them as we should have over the course of the year. I know that I didn’t do that — instead revising my own expectations downward, over and over — and I think I learned a lesson from that about the possibilities available when everything breaks wrong.

But the converse about possibilities is also true. I was prepared for — anticipating, even — Kyle Trask proving to be overmatched after Feleipe Franks got hurt; he went on to have one of the 10 best careers any quarterback at Florida has ever had. And I know my worst fears regarding Trask were based on the same sorts of assumptions I had come to from practices and spring games and brief stints on Saturdays in the fall.

We are, I think, savvier about this as fans than we were years ago. We realize, often, that we are extrapolating more than explaining, hoping rather than being holistic. I liked the way David Waters framed it yesterday:

I just want us to be honest about the fact that we’re lying — to believe only half of what we say, and be ready to back off our boasts as swiftly as we’d back them up.