Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Jeff Driskel: A Convenient Scapegoat? (Part II)

After watching all the venom spewed at Jeff Driskel this weekend, I wanted to take a step back from things and try to take a more rational approach to his current reign as leader of the Florida offense (now at 14 games and counting). Yesterday, we took a quick glance at Driskel's performance last Saturday in a loss against Miami. Now, I want to take the long view. And try to put his situation in perspective against quarterbacks from other programs.

One thing that got me thinking. A Facebook post from a friend of mine (a big UCF fan) who said this over the weekend: "Guess UF got the wrong kid out of Oviedo!!! Bortles hasn't thrown an INT in months, not minutes."

First, let me explain: Bortles and Driskel are from the same town (ish) of Oviedo, just north of UCF on the southern end of Osceola County. Bortles attended the well-established program at Oviedo High School, which has been an occasional power in central Florida prep circles over the years. Now is definitely an "up" cycle for the program.

Driskel, meanwhile, attended the newly-opened Hagerty High School, south of "old" Oviedo, which is in the middle of a housing boom that has sprung up just north of UCF (which is actually in Orange County) in recent years. Driskel's freshman year at Hagerty coincided with the school's first year of varsity football in 2007.

Now, back to the claim of Florida getting the wrong quarterback out of Oviedo. It's certainly not an unreasonable assertion right now, in light of the numbers. Bortles has played extremely well for Central Florida and undoubtedly had a stronger showing at quarterback early in his second season as the unquestioned starter for the Knights. I also can't help but think he's had a better set of circumstances in which to grow into (and blossom) in the role of signal-caller at the college level.

First, consider this. Bortles played for a stronger, more firmly-established high school team. It wouldn't be difficult to argue his prep experiences better prepared Bortles for what he would experience as he moved on to UCF. Driskel, meanwhile, played for a brand new program that was lacking both in talent and cohesion. Playing for a young program at Hagerty High School, Driskel did not have excellent skill talent around him. After taking over as the starting quarterback early in his freshman year, the offense was built largely around his considerable abilities as a runner.

Secondly, Bortles had a much smoother transition into the role of starter. He was eased into the position over three years, redshirting as a freshman, splitting time with Jeff Godfrey in his second year, and then taking over as the full-time starter as a sophomore in 2012. On that plan, Driskel would only be assuming the reigns full-time this fall, his third season on campus. Instead, he was thrown into the fire early, seeing his first major action at home in a blowout loss to Alabama after starter John Brantley went down. Injuries would eventually end Driskel's freshman season early following his next appearance, another loss on the road at Auburn. Driskel was not afforded the same process of easing into the role as a guy like Bortles. Or in a sense, even Johnny Football at A&M or Jameis Winston at Florida State. Both of those guys got a full redshirt year to prepare before being tossed into the fire.

Okay, so you're going to come back with "Cal's Jared Goff and Texas Tech's Baker Mayfield aren't doing too shabby so far this year. Why is Driskel still struggling to put up big numbers?"

It's true, Goff and Mayfield are lighting it up and making the transition from high school to college look easy. But, remember this. It's still early in the season, for one. Two, Mayfield played in essentially a very similar system in high school to the Air Raid derivative he's now running for Kliff Kingsbury at Texas Tech. As for Goff, he was hand-picked by Dykes to run the show at Cal because of his size and pinpoint accuracy. That he's doing so well as a true frosh is surprising, but maybe it shouldn't be. There are now plenty of prep quarterbacks out there who run offenses just as intricate as what some college guys are tasked with.

Still, that doesn't mean every prospect coming out of the high school ranks is ready to come in and roll out on the field as a ready-made starter. And that leads to my third and final point to consider: circumstances. Driskel was a project coming from Hagerty H.S. A young man with good size, a big arm and quick feet. He needed time to pick up the nuances of playing the quarterback position. He also needed to be surrounded with good talent at the skill positions and along the offensive line. That is finally starting to happen, and it's why I do expect him to put up good numbers this year. That was hardly the case in 2011 and 2012. Going through a transition from Charlie Weis to Brent Pease certainly didn't help matters any for a young guy still getting a feel for playing quarterback at the college level. Coaching stability is something that Bortles has had the benefit of, unlike Driskel.

Sometimes, it's all about finding the right fit and going to a system that suits your individual talents. That's why Goff and Mayfield are doing so well at a precocious age (at least for a college quarterback.) They're in the right place, at the right time, with a good fit for their talents. Likewise, Bortles came in to UCF alongside Jeff Godfrey. Despite Godfrey's splashy freshman season, his shortcomings as a quarterback were exposed in year two, as Bortles was starting to come around and show he was the future of the position. Although Bortles was overlooked a bit in recruiting circles, I doubt he's too upset with how things have turned out. He's in a great fit at UCF, with coaching stability and good skill and offensive line talent around him.

Driskel hasn't been blessed with the same luxuries for which some of his contemporaries have blossomed with. I'm just saying this – it's something to keep in mind before throwing a physically gifted young quarterback under the bus. Florida's starting quarterback may just prove everyone wrong, yet.

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