In many ways, Jeff Driskel is the same now as he was entering last season.
His hobbies have gone unchanged. He still enjoys spending time outdoors — especially if it involves a fishing pole or hog hunting. He still prefers spending time with his girlfriend, former UF cheerleader Tarin Moses, to a night on the town. And his use of social media is never indicative of the me-first, chest-pumping culture that engulfs many college athletes.
“Jeff is Jeff,” said Jerry Driskel, Jeff’s father. “Everybody is different, obviously, but he is not one that is going to change. He isn’t going to showboat or look to get a lot of attention. He stays true to himself.”
But there is a noticeable difference in Driskel’s disposition entering his third season, which is his first as the unquestioned leader of the Gators.
Gone is the indecision that plagued him last season. Replacing it is conviction that can be heard when Driskel speaks and seen when he interacts with teammates.
It’s a transformation that has not gone unnoticed by other Gators.
“Jeff is doing a great job. We need that from our quarterback,” redshirt senior offensive lineman Jon Halapio said at Southeastern Conference Media Days on July 16. “Filling that role, his leadership has definitely picked up. He’s changed and grown up since last year.”
Second-year offensive coordinator Brent Pease spent the offseason watching Driskel.
Pease studied how Driskel’s teammates responded when the junior quarterback led player-run practices, shouted encouragement in the weight room or digested film like his health depended on it.
“He’s not afraid to step up and say something," Pease said. "He’s demonstrated that. When you get a kid who becomes vocalized in a good way and demonstrates that and talks to his teammates and challenges and encourages them, you know he’s taken the next step.”
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The only steps Driskel took leading into the 2012 season were on eggshells.
Immersed in a quarterback competition with fellow sophomore Jacoby Brissett — an up-and-down, back-and-forth battle that dragged into Florida’s season opener against Bowling Green — Driskel was wary of becoming a leader.
Whether it was during team meetings, while watching film or in the huddle, he wondered internally if he was meeting expectations.
Would he come across as ignorant if he spoke up to ask a question during a meeting? What would happen if he admitted he was having trouble understanding an offensive package?
“I didn’t want to step on anyone’s toes or cross any boundaries last season,” he said.
That worry is no longer an issue.
Driskel was named the starter prior to Florida's Week 2 matchup against Texas A&M and held the job throughout 2012. After the season, Brissett chose to transfer to N.C. State.
The decision cemented Driskel as Florida’s starting quarterback for the foreseeable future. Internally, he felt more comfortable than he had at any point during the past two years.
“This year is a lot smoother,” he said. “Just knowing you’re the guy and everyone else knows you’re the guy goes a long way.”
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Long before he won the starting quarterback job at Florida, Driskel was known affectionately as “Godzilla.”
Living with his family in Japan — Jerry Driskel served in the Navy for 20 years and was stationed in several different locations — Jeff became known for his superior athletic ability and overwhelming size compared to the Japanese children he stood alongside.
Driskel is now listed at 6-foot-4 and 236 pounds. As he says, size was never an issue, and his friends in Japan liked to remind him of that.
At that time in his life, football was not his main focus. Baseball was, and his mass and might earned him the monstrous nickname.
“Jeff has always kind of been a natural athlete,” Jerry said. “He has just always loved all sports.”
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When Jerry retired from the Navy, the Driskel family returned from Japan and settled in the Orlando area. A few years later, Jeff was starring for both the baseball team and football team at Oviedo Hagerty High.
As a high school freshman, Driskel received his first big break from Hagerty football coach Nate Gierke, who first saw Driskel play quarterback as an eighth-grader and quickly realized his enormous potential.
In the team’s third game of the season, Driskel, a big-eared, bug-eyed freshman, was named the team’s starting quarterback, a job that was his to keep unless performance dictated otherwise. It never did.
“He had to grow into the leader of our team as a freshman who just arrived,” Gierke said. “He did just that. He was the best player I had ever seen at the high school level when he got done playing for me, and he still is.
“It’s funny, the further I get away from the time that he spent with our program, the more I have an appreciation for what he did for us. I have never seen anybody have the type of impact on a football program that he had for us.”
Driskel led Hagerty to its first playoff appearance with its third-ever senior class. He earned high school player of the year honors in his final season by scoring 36 touchdowns and accumulating more than 3,000 all-purpose yards.
“He has exceeded every expectation I have ever had for him,” Gierke said.
“The best compliment I can probably pay anybody that has ever played for me is they are a better person than football player. Jeff is one of those guys."
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When most high school football prospects face a life-changing decision, they are choosing which college to attend. But for Driskel, that choice was easy.
Despite being recruited by many SEC programs and other schools throughout the country, he knew he wanted to play for the Gators.
Driskel’s big decision was which sport to fully focus on. As a junior at Hagerty, he hit .330 and displayed great range and a strong arm in the outfield.
The combination of size and speed that once earned him the “Godzilla” nickname, and would later serve as the basis for comparisons to former Florida quarterback Tim Tebow, left Major League Baseball scouts drooling about his potential as a five-tool outfielder.
Had Driskel committed to baseball, he likely would have been a top-100 pick. But the lure of playing for UF was too much to pass up.
“It’s hard to turn down a full-ride scholarship to Florida,” Driskel said. “It’s hard to do.”
He skipped baseball season his senior year to enroll early at UF.
Despite walking away from baseball, Driskel was selected by the Boston Red Sox in the 29th round in June’s draft, which was a surprise to the entire Driskel family.
“We actually didn’t know he was eligible this last year,” Jerry said.
Driskel signed a contract with the Red Sox but has no plans to pursue a baseball career. He is content with the choice he made.
“Running out of the tunnel, playing in front of 90,000, 100,000 (fans) week in and week out,” Driskel said. “It was a no-brainer for me."
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Driskel’s performance in 2012 was typical of a first-year starting quarterback enduring the rigors of the Southeastern Conference.
His raw statistics were mediocre. Driskel played in 12 games and passed for 1,646 yards — the fewest by a full-time UF quarterback since Kyle Morris threw for 1,098 yards in 1989 — as Florida’s passing offense trudged to a last place finish in the SEC and ranked 114th of 120 teams nationally.
Buoyed by an elite defense and a run game that averaged 187.7 yards per game, Driskel and the Gators were able to grind out 11 wins and earn a trip to the Sugar Bowl — UF’s first BCS Bowl berth since January 2010.
But with seven defensive starters ripped away from a unit that finished No. 5 in total defense a year ago, Driskel knows he must improve.
“We’re going to have to throw the ball more, and we’ll have to be more efficient throwing the ball,” he said. “We’re going to have to hit more big plays. We can’t run the ball 50 times a game like we did last year at points."
Driskel has worked tirelessly during the offseason to support his claim.
He spent additional time tutoring freshmen receivers Demarcus Robinson and Ahmad Fulwood to help integrate the budding playmakers into the offense.
He worked to establish a better connection with receivers Quinton Dunbar, who is UF’s leading returning pass-catcher, and Solomon Patton.
No longer having to look over his shoulder, Driskel has relished the opportunity to take command of the offense. The keys are in his hands, and he will rev the No. 10 Gators’ engine against Toledo on Saturday at 12:21 p.m.
It is a moment he has been working toward since first stepping foot in Gainesville.
“I feel like I have gotten much better,” Driskel said of his offeseason progression. “I’m excited for the first game to really show it off.”
Follow Phil Heilman on Twitter @phillip_heilman.