NFL.com’s Around The League blog recently posited the question: “Is Jeff Driskel making a run at the 49ers starting gig?”
Say what you will of the San Francisco 49ers’ quarterback situation, but Driskel inserting himself into the conversation as a professional starter speaks to the remarkable turnaround of a career written off not long ago.
Driskel struggled mightily in three seasons at Florida, playing with a revolving door of offensive coordinators spinning behind him. From Charlie Weis to Kurt Roper, Driskel never found his footing with the Gators, and landed at Louisiana Tech.
He was outstanding for the Bulldogs last season. His 4,033 yards passing ranked 11th in the nation, he completed more than 62 percent of his pass attempts, scored 27 touchdowns against just eight interceptions, and he rushed for another 325 yards and five touchdowns.
You’re unlikely to ever read of Driskel lamenting his decision.
“Going into Florida, I thought I was going to play for three years and be the No. 1 overall pick in the draft,” he told Guerry Smith of The Advocate in December, ahead of Tech’s New Orleans Bowl defeat of Arkansas State. “That’s how you draw it up, but you never know how things are going to play out. You just have to trust the process and enjoy it. I’m happy it ended up this way.”
Had Driskel remained in Gainesville for his last year of eligibility, playing under the tutelage of proven quarterback guru Jim McElwain, how might it have impacted the Gators’ season?
Florida won 10 games and an unexpected SEC East divisional title in McElwain’s first season, overcoming some adversity along the way. Among the Gators’ problems: quarterback play.
Will Grier was excellent in the first-half of the campaign, including in a win over Ole Miss. Grier went 24-of-29 for 271 yards with four touchdowns in the Gators’ blowout victory.
But Grier’s yearlong suspension, handed down on Oct. 13 for testing positive for a banned substance, forced Treon Harris into the starting lineup.
Florida lost its first game of the season that same week, 35-28 at LSU. Harris’ final line that night was decent enough: 271 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions.
However, as was the case in each of his starts, Harris completed fewer than 60 percent of his pass attempts. His inaccuracy contributed to some stalled Gators drives, including in the fourth quarter with opportunities to take the lead after battling back from down two touchdowns.
His precedent with Florida doesn’t exactly scream that Driskel would have fared better. He left the program with 23 touchdown passes against 20 picks and a completion percentage below 54 in his final season with the Gators.
So what would have been different?
The answer is Jim McElwain.
McElwain has a proven knack for maximizing the ability of perhaps limited quarterbacks through schematics. He helped Alabama to a national championship in 2011 with a young A.J. McCarron behind center. McElwain’s game-plan for the 2012 BCS Championship Game
Florida’s approach masked some of Harris’ limitations. It’s likely Florida would have built around Driskel’s strengths — which are arguably greater than Harris’ — and covered up his weaknesses.
Now, it must be mentioned Harris replaced Driskel midway through the 2014 campaign. There’s no guarantee Driskel would have regained the job despite regime change, and Driskel transferred shortly after the coaching switch came.
Still, Driskel made strides in 2015 Harris didn’t. He told Yahoo! Sports at February’s NFL combine he improved his ability to make reads, and cited his performance in Louisiana Tech’s game against Mississippi State for proof that his improvement translated to SEC-level competition.
NFL scouts apparently agree Driskel progressed, as do San Francisco 49ers coaches who view him as a competitor for the starting job.
But how would it have stacked up against Alabama? Since the purpose of this What If Wednesday is evaluating Florida’s SEC title chances, let’s look to the conference championship game.
The Crimson Tide won by two touchdowns, but trailed much of the first half, and led by just five going into intermission. That was with Florida’s offense rendered completely one-dimensional.
With a more dangerous passing attack, perhaps the Gators are able to amount some, ANY kind of offensive. The defense performed valiantly, but simply lacked the support to hold off a Crimson Tide deluge.
Now, in a scenario in which a Driskel-quarterbacked Florida team beats both LSU and Alabama, but lose to Florida State, the Gators go to the College Football Playoff. Slam dunk.
But assuming they still lose to LSU, but knock off Alabama in the SEC Championship Game, the committee is left with two-loss SEC champion Florida, two-loss Pac-12 champion Stanford and one-loss Big Ten runner-up Iowa vying for the last Playoff berth.
Looks like a topic for a different What If Wednesday.