Driskel's journey to UF
Published: Friday, October 7, 2011 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, October 7, 2011 at 12:07 a.m.
Florida freshman Jeff Driskel has lived in a different country, hit a baseball more than 470 feet and was homecoming king of his high school class.
On Saturday, the 18-year-old Driskel could add starting quarterback at Florida to his growing list of accomplishments.
Driskel is expected to become the first freshman to start at quarterback at UF since Chris Leak in 2003 when the Gators play at No. 1 LSU. Florida coach Will Muschamp has yet to name
Driskel the starter, but acknowledged he was “ahead” of quarterbacks Tyler Murphy and Jacoby Brissett this week in practice.
Success has come quickly to Driskel. According to his high school coaches, it hasn't come without hard work. Driskel earned a 3.94 grade-point average in high school while putting in time on the field as well.
“He's the single hardest-working kid I've coached in seven years of high school baseball,” said Oviedo Hagerty baseball coach Jered Goodwin.
Goodwin has mentored Driskel, teaching him in three classes while coaching him in both high school and the AAU-league baseball traveling circuit. Goodwin is convinced that Driskel, a power-hitting center fielder who could run the 40-yard dash in 4.5 seconds, would have been taken in the first round in last June's amateur baseball draft if he stuck with baseball.
“He probably turned down $2 million to be a Gator,” Goodwin said. “There's not a lot of people who could do that. At the end of the day, he came to me and told me he thought it was best for him to go to (Florida) early. I was supportive of him because I knew that's what he really wanted.”
Driskel enrolled early at Florida as a 17-year-old last January to get a jump on learning the offense. He worked his way up to second on the depth chart and played the second half against Alabama when starting quarterback John Brantley was sidelined with a high ankle sprain.
“We have the ultimate confidence in Driskel,” Florida sophomore receiver Andre Debose said. “I feel like he can get the job done.”
Debose said that Driskel has progressed in his 10 months on UF's campus.
“His whole attitude has changed since the time he's been here,” Debose said. “He let us know he doesn't even consider himself a freshman anymore.”
That maturity doesn't surprise those that are closest to him.
“He's a serious kid,” Goodwin said. “He's serious about his academics, serious about athletics, serious about his relationships and his family. He likes the little things. He's like a 12-year-old trapped inside a man's body. He's got that kind of sense of humor. And he enjoys being around his family and friends.”
Driskel was born in Jacksonville, the son of a Naval senior chief. The Driskel family moved to Japan when Jeff was 7. Driskel's father, Jerry, was assigned to the U.S. Naval Base in Sasebo, Japan.
In Japan, young Jeff played baseball and made friends on and off the base.
“He was called the white Babe Ruth,” Goodwin said. “He said it felt kind of awkward because he was one of the bigger kids. But he liked everyone there and said everyone was nice to him.”
When Jerry Driskel retired from the Navy in 2003, the family moved to Oviedo, an Orlando suburb. By the time Jeff was 14, he had sprouted to 6-foot-1 and was 180 pounds. Hagerty High in Oviedo was in just its third year as a high school football program. Hagerty football coach Nate Gierke was approaching the school's first full season with no seniors on the roster.
“In a way, anybody that stood out, regardless of if they were a freshman or a junior, was going to get noticed,” Gierke said. “I had every intention of playing Jeff with the freshman team, but when he came in, when you saw him perform on the field and the physical gifts he had. He was clearly a step above everybody.”
Driskel finished his freshman season throwing for 4,844 yards and 36 touchdowns in eight games as a varsity starter.
“I knew coming in the kind of physical ability that Jeff had.” Gierke said. “But what I didn't know was what kind of kid he was. Jeff was really, really mature for a 14-year-old. And he really had that ‘it' factor, that intangible factor. The players respected him and he always was looking to get better, to work hard and to compete.”
While Driskel continued to grow physically, he continued to gain attention from colleges throughout the country. Gierke said he had a feeling Driskel would hit the national scene following a game in his sophomore year. In that game, Driskel threw for 240 yards and 3 touchdowns to lead Hagerty to the state playoffs.
“I told their parents, y'all better get a bigger mailbox because you are going to be getting a ton of letters from all over the country,” Gierke said.
Goodwin recalled during one Florida recruiting visit, Driskel was taking batting practice. He turned on a fastball that cleared the 50-foot fence on the baseball field and landed beyond the infield of the adjacent softball field.
“(Former Florida quarterbacks coach) Scot Loeffler was here,” Goodwin said. “We got the tape measure out and decided to measure it. It was 477 feet.”
Driskel eventually grew to 6-foot-4 and 235 pounds. By his senior year, Driskel was considered one of the top quarterback prospects in the nation. In his final high school game, against perennial state-power Lakeland, Driskel threw for 182 yards and rushed for 270 yards in a 56-35 loss.
“It was the best single-game performance that I have ever seen, and I've been fortunate enough to coach some guys who have gone on to college and the NFL,” Gierke said. “We were facing one of the top high school programs in the country and he refused to let our team quit.”
Driskel finished his senior season with 1,819 yards passing and 1,333 rushing. He showed his running ability (if not happy feet in the pocket) during a 31-yard scramble against Alabama in the second half. But Gierke said Driskel is not a run-first quarterback.
“When he scrambles, his eyes are always downfield,” Gierke said. “We had kind of gravitated to a spread offense. I'm a pro-style guy, but we were running the spread by the time Jeff was a senior. But he's capable of throwing the ball downfield and making big throws.”
On Saturday, Driskel could face the biggest on-field challenge in his young career. Not only could Driskel make his first career start on the road, he would be doing it against a top-ranked LSU team that arguably has the best defense in the country.
“Regardless of what happens on Saturday, he's going to be special,” Goodwin said. “He's the kind of athlete that Florida can be proud of.”