Quarterback in the spotlight


Quarterback Jeff Driskel has already heard his share of criticism, even though he has only been UF's starter for one season. (The Associated Press/Illustration by Jon McDonald)

Published: Saturday, June 29, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, July 1, 2013 at 11:23 a.m.

A few days after a shaky performance in a lackluster win over Maryland and Boomer Esiason in 1981, Wayne Peace decided he needed to get away from all the pressure and attention that come with being the starting quarterback at Florida.

Peace and his girlfriend made their escape to a youth football team's practice in northwest Gainesville, way out near Santa Fe Community College, where Peace figured watching a bunch of young kids playing the game for fun would be good therapy and give him perspective.

The peace did not last long.

“The folks behind us apparently didn't recognize me,” Peace said. “The guy brought up the Maryland game to his wife and he started talking about, ‘What a crappy game Peace played on Saturday.' He went on and on.

“I never said a word to him. There was nothing I could say or do. I just sat there.”

Such is life for the starting quarterback at Florida.

Being the Florida quarterback is a coveted title, one that can bring glory and fame (and maybe even a fat NFL contract). It also comes with lots of pressure, scrutiny and almost certain criticism.

It is a life lived, and a game played, under a microscope.

There is no escape.

“It's something that comes with the job description,” Shane Matthews said. “Whether you're at Florida or Alabama or Ball State, you're going to be the big man on campus. You've got to act the right way on and off the field. The attention is always focused on the quarterback.

“I'm a firm believer that the quarterback gets too much credit when a team wins and too much blame when it loses. It comes with the quarterback position. It's tough. It's a little tougher nowadays with cell phones and the social media.”

Matthews is one of UF's great quarterback success stories. He rose from the bottom of the depth chart to become Steve Spurrier's first starting quarterback at Florida. He led the Gators to their first SEC title, was the league's most valuable offensive player and a three-time All-SEC pick.

But he was not above the criticism that can come with the position.

“There were times (when I heard the criticism),” Matthews said. “You've got to have thick skin to be a quarterback. I don't think any quarterback has ever played a perfect game. You're going to get criticized.”

No Florida quarterback has been immune from it. Not Matthews. Not Peace. Not Spurrier. Not Kerwin Bell. Not Danny Wuerffel. Not Doug Johnson. Not even Tim Tebow (although some might debate that).

Bell, the former walk-on from Mayo who emerged as a Heisman Trophy candidate in the mid-1980s, knows all about the pressure that comes with the job. And he knows how fickle the fans can be.

“In my first year (1984), the pressure didn't really hit me. I was just trying to hold on by the seat of my pants,” said Bell, now the head coach at Jacksonville University. “Each year is different. As you head into your second year (as the starter) there are a lot more expectations.

“My first two years were great. We were 9-1-1 (in '84 and '85) and could do no wrong. When we were walking to or from practice, we didn't have to stop to cross the street (at what was then North South Drive). Fans would honk their horn letting you know it was OK to cross. Everyone loved the Gators.

“In my second two years (when UF went 6-5 and 6-6 under severe NCAA sanctions), when someone honked their horn at you it was to tell you to get out of the way. They were trying to hit a Gator. There is a lot of pressure when you start losing.”

Win or lose, the pressure is always present if you're the Florida quarterback.

“That's a fact you accept when you come to a place like Florida,” said Johnson, the former Buchholz High School star. “That's the reality. If you have confidence in yourself and in your ability, you welcome that.”

The guy in the breach now is Jeff Driskel, the true junior who is coming off his first season as the Gators' starting quarterback.

He already knows about the heat and the pressure that come with the territory.

Despite helping lead the Gators to a big rebound season (11-2) in coach Will Muschamp's second second year, Driskel has taken all sorts of hits in the social media. Many have criticized his inconsistent play and questioned if he has what it takes to make the Gators championship material again.

To those critics, four former Florida quarterbacks (Peace, Bell, Matthews and Johnson) have a message: hold on, it's way too early to judge Driskel, a quarterback with a big arm and maybe even a bigger upside. Be patient, they say.

“I'm a huge Jeff Driskel fan,” Peace said. “His tools as a quarterback are phenomenal. I think we're going to see some amazing things out of him as he continues to develop. Just look at his skill set. He has great size, runs a 4.5 40 and has one of the prettiest throwing motions you'll ever see. The guy can be phenomenal.”

Peace said Driskel has already passed one major test. He's shown he can handle the pressure and criticism.

“He's kept his composure and he's always comes off as very intelligent in interviews,” Peace said. “He doesn't lose his cool. I'm really impressed with how he's handled all that.

“The way he's handled criticism has been remarkable for a young quarterback. I can't say enough about Jeff Driskel and the situation he's in.”

Matthews said he also likes Driskel's mental makeup.

“Most successful quarterbacks are mentally tough,” Matthews said. “They don't care what the people on the outside are saying as long as they know they are the leader of the football team.

“Jeff is mentally tough. He's physically tough as well. He's got all the ability in the world, no question about that. He has a chance to be a heck of a quarterback. He's still learning the passing game. It's learning process and he'll get better over time.”

Johnson said Driskel did what he was asked to do last year by Muschamp and offensive coordinator Brent Pease. He managed games well and put the Gators in a position to win games in the fourth quarter.

Now that he has a year of experience, Driskel's role likely will expand in the offense, Johnson said.

“I think he has the best head coach he could possibly have and an offensive coordinator that has a tremendous mind for calling plays,” Johnson said. “I think he should be excited about where he's at.

“He's got tremendous athletic ability and obviously a strong arm. He's got a coach and a coordinator who will get the most out of him, and that will be fun to watch this season.”

Bell said the dynamics will change for Driskel in his second year as the starter.

“Last year, they had a lot of young guys and a new offensive coordinator,” Bell said. “They were doing what they had to do to win games: run and not go down the field that much (in the passing game). They always tried to put him in the best position. They protected him very well.

“In year two, more will be expected of him.The dynamic of the team will change. I think you're going to see him continue to improve. He's got the physical ability. You want to see if he can make reads a little quicker and anticipate a little better.”

Bell said Driskel has a chance to evolve into a big-time quarterback.

“He's got a big arm and can move,” Bell said. “He can avoid the rush, which is something you have to have at quarterback now. He has the ability to be a guy you can win championships with.

“The other things have to come, just be more instinctive playing the position. Those things have to be a little more natural. As you play and evolve, those things will come for him. I hope that's what Gator fans will see this season.

“Jeff has the ability to be a championship quarterback.”

Contact Robbie Andreu at 352-374-5022 or andreur@gvillesun.com. Also check out Andreu's blog at Gatorsports.com.

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