Jeff Driskel started Florida’s second drive against Tennessee on a hot streak.
After passing for a career-high 291 yards in UF’s 21-16 loss to Miami two weeks earlier, the junior quarterback picked up right where he left off against the Hurricanes.
Driskel completed three of his four passes for 33 yards, marching the Gators down the field.
Then, on third-and-3 from the Tennessee 41-yard line with 9:39 remaining in the first quarter, Driskel dropped back to pass.
Tennessee defensive lineman Marlon Walls wrapped up Driskel and launched him to the ground after he attempted the pass, which was intercepted by Volunteers defensive back Devaun Swafford and returned 62 yards for the first touchdown of the game.
As Swafford and the rest of the Tennessee team were in the endzone celebrating the touchdown, Florida fans had their eyes focused near midfield — where their up-and-coming quarterback was on his knees in pain.
His right fibula was fractured, his season over before the calendar hit October.
The hit caused Driskel to join linebacker Matt Rolin, wide receiver Andre Debose and offensive lineman Chaz Green on the list of players who would not play football for the rest of the season — a list that climbed to 12 players by the end of 2013.
"I hurt for him, and I hurt for us right now," coach Will Muschamp said after the 31-17 victory, one of the rare winning sights the Gators saw as they limped to a 4-8 record.
"It’s going to hurt us. He’s a guy that’s won a lot of ballgames here, and it’s disappointing for him right now."
It’s been a little more than 11 months since that day.
And with Florida’s 2014 season opener against Idaho on Saturday at 7 p.m., Driskel is ready to take the helm of the Gators’ offense at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium once again.
"That’s in the past. I’m good to go now," Driskel said. "Not thinking about it, just getting back out there with the guys is what I’m looking forward to most."
"But there’s nothing really like Game 1. It’s a really good feeling coming out of the tunnel."
Driskel’s third season ended with a pick-six and a broken leg.
But since training camp began this summer, his leg has healed and his only completions have been to the offense.
"He’s making better decisions with the ball and is more smart with it," senior defensive back Jabari Gorman said. "He’s seeing guys who are already open and making good decisions."
Better ball protection will be key for Driskel if Florida hopes to have a successful 2014 campaign.
The Gators finished last season with a -2 turnover ratio, a 17-point downturn from their +15 margin in 2012 that tied for seventh in the nation.
"We haven’t been explosive enough offensively to overcome turnovers, and I think we will be this year," Muschamp said at UF’s media day on Aug. 3. "Certainly not saying it’s OK to turn the ball over. We’ve got to take care of the ball. That’s the number one thing as far as our team goals are concerned."
2013 was supposed to be Driskel’s breakout season.
He may have registered 10 wins in his first year as the team’s signal caller in 2012 — he sat out Florida’s 23-0 rout of Jacksonville State with a sprained right ankle — but his pure numbers were paltry.
His 1,646 passing yards ranked 11th in the Southeastern Conference and 99th in the nation.
His 6.7 yards per pass attempt were tied for 11th and 80th in those categories.
His 12 touchdown passes tied for 10th and 90th, respectively.
Through his lone two complete games of the 2013 season, Driskel showed promise, averaging 222 passing yards per game — the most from a UF quarterback since Tim Tebow averaged 252.8 yards through the air per contest during the 2007 season.
But because of his injury, everyone is left to ponder what could have happened if Driskel lasted the entirety of the season.
Would his numbers have remained steady?
Would he crash and burn as the SEC slate intensified?
Would he grind through the adversity and turn doubters into believers?
Those questions are still lingering, and they’ll continue to linger until Driskel either puts up or shuts up.
"I think that we never really, as a fan base, got to enjoy the progress that was made from year two to year three, last year," Muschamp said, "but I see much more command, comfort level."
Florida’s aerial attack has been stagnant since Muschamp took the helm in 2011.
In Muschamp’s first three seasons, the Gators never finished better than 104th in total offense.
Two offensive coordinators in Charlie Weis and Brent Pease have come and gone.
Maybe the third will be the charm with Kurt Roper.
Roper, Duke’s offensive coordinator from 2008-2013, knows how to bring the tempo to an offense.
In Roper’s final five years with the Blue Devils, Duke finished no worse than 50th in passing offense.
UF players notice the difference.
"He’s going hard every play. He’s like a player out there," said wide receiver Valdez Showers.
"He loves the game. He’s always got energy. There’s not one day where he comes out there down. You feed off his energy. He’s always up-tempo, so you want to be up-tempo. That’s the way the offense goes."
And after eight months to learn Roper’s spread offense — a shotgun-heavy, quick-paced system — Driskel is looking not just like a new quarterback, but also a new player.
"I understand what we’re doing really well," Driskel said.
"Schematically, where we want to go with the ball in certain situations. When we want to do run checks. When you start to do that you can focus on the defense as well. ... All the time I’ve put in is really starting to pay off. The game has really slowed down a lot."
Added Showers: "I feel like this offense fits him more. … He’s definitely made some strides in getting more of a feel for the game and not being as robotic in going through his reads."
And although Roper wants to unleash Driskel and let him run free, the first-year UF coordinator doesn’t want a repeat of last season.
"It’s always the debate," Roper said.
"It’s an interesting discussion that we’re having all the time as the staff. The number one thing is winning a football game and trying to find the way to win a football game. Jeff does give us the ability with his feet to add to the run game and cause defenses more issues. You definitely want to use that, but at the same time you want to be smart.
"He doesn’t need to take any unnecessary hits."
Although Driskel has to step up and move away from a game-manager role, he won’t have to carry the offense on his own.
The Gators have a three-headed monster in the backfield composed of running backs Matt Jones, Kelvin Taylor and Mack Brown.
The wide receiver corps is talented enough that Roper believes he can rotate up to eight players and see similar production totals from each.
Redshirt senior Jake McGee — a transfer from Virginia — gives UF a viable pass-catching tight end for the first time since Jordan Reed left for the NFL Draft following the 2012 season.
The offensive line, which saw seven different alignments throughout the 2013 season due to injury, is fully healthy.
"Players are a reflection of their coach," Muschamp said. "Kurt is a very upbeat, positive guy. He’s got a little edge about him. ... But again, it starts with talent, and I think we’re more talented than we’ve been. But Kurt’s got an edge about him that I really like."
Saturday can’t come soon enough for Florida.
It’s the opportunity to start anew, and until the Gators snap the seven-game losing streak they carry over from 2013, the memories of that season will still arise.
"Nobody wants to be 4-8," Dunbar said. "We think about it. We bring it up at times because we still got that sour taste in our mouths from last year. We feel like we’re going to get revenge."
But no opponent can be taken for granted.
Not even an Idaho team that went 1-11 last season and saw opponents average 46.8 points per game against them.
"We had four wins last year," redshirt senior middle linebacker Mike Taylor said," so you know that’s just the difference between the years. ... They want to turn their season around just like we do as well. We can’t take any opponent likely, especially coming in here."
The Gators are ready to leave the past in the past, and Muschamp has just one thing to say:
"Just shut up and go play."
Follow Jordan McPherson on Twitter @J_Mcpherson1126