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In the wake of the Treon Harris suspension, one person stands to benefit: quarterback Jeff Driskel. While it’s unlikely that he would have been benched prior to the suspension, he was likely looking at splitting time with true freshman Harris. Many fans felt he was headed towards losing his spot altogether.
Now he has a reprieve.
“Well, Jeff [Driskel] will start the game,” head coach Will Muschamp said on Wednesday. “Jeff was going to [start], no question. We had not made a decision off the last game about who would start the game. Jeff was going to play in the game, I do know that.”
The biggest question now for Gator Nation is how will he respond to the new lease on life?
“Jeff’s a tough young man,” Muschamp said. “He’s resilient. I met with him Sunday and I talked to him after the game and talked to him Monday. He understands the situation. He needs to play better. He takes full responsibility to be the quarterback at the University of Florida. The way he has handled this has been outstanding.”
While receiving the brunt of fan criticism, Driskel still appears to have the confidence of the coaching staff. They feel like they just need to get his confidence up to perform at the level they feel he’s capable.
“I think we’ve taken a lot of the positive things we’ve done within his career here at the University of Florida, which there’s been a lot,” Muschamp said of Driskel. “Played in some big games. Played in a big game against LSU here two years ago and won and made some plays in that game that helped us. Those are all things that we’ve tried to accentuate at this time, and that’s what we’re doing.”
So now rather than opening up a competition for the starting job, the battle will be for the back up slot.
“As we continue to practice today and tomorrow, right now Skyler [Mornhinweg] and Will [Grier] are swapping the reps with the second group,” according to Muschamp. “We’ll make the decision game time.”
Grier, for his part, appeared headed for a redshirt season but now that appears to be off the table.
“We hadn’t really made a decision [concerning a redshirt for Grier] considering the length we still had to go in the season,” Muschamp said. “So, you know, we had not had that discussion as far as a redshirt at that time. Given the situation of having two guys that had played to that point in the season, that’s probably where we were headed. Certainly given the situation right now, obviously not.”
Mornhinweg was pressed into action at the end of last season after losing both Driskel and backup Tyler Murphy and it wasn’t very pretty. Considering that and the fact that Skyler’s skill set isn’t exactly suited for this offense, expect Grier to be the backup and expect to see him get some game reps in spots as well moving forward.
While most of fan criticism this season has focused on Jeff Driskel’s apparent struggles, Muschamp has been quick to note the poor play from his receivers as well.
“Yeah, fifteen drops at the position…” Muschamp quickly pointed out when asked about the receiver’s struggles thus far.
“It’s amazing what confidence can do for you as an athlete. I look at the situation with the receivers, we’re trying to get some things going in the throwing game. We drop a slant on the first drive. It’s like the air comes out of you a little bit. We’ve got to overcome those situations. We’ve got to finish on some plays. We’ve got to be able to place the ball on 3rd and 6 to an out route, to a tight end on the money. There’s a lot of things involved in it, but I think from a standpoint of us making some plays, creating some confidence for our guys right now, it’s critical.”
Other than in the Kentucky game where Demarcus Robinson had 15 catches for over 200 yards, Gator receivers have been fairly pedestrian. They’ve been plagued by inopportune drops, poor route running, and mental mistakes which have killed drives and magnified Driskel’s struggles. This unit must play better if the Gators hope to have any shot of winning the SEC east.
“We took about 15 plays from the [Tennessee] game and illustrated that to our players, and not to defend Jeff, but to defend the quarterback position,” Muschamp said about the receiving corps. “People around him need to execute better and take ownership in what they need to do better. You’ve got 15 drops at the receiver position in four games. That’s a bunch. You want to talk about confidence and timing, and getting things going. Those are things we’ve addressed within the ownership in the position. Take ownership in your play and how you play and how you perform instead of pointing a finger at somebody else, which is the easiest thing to do and what we do in our society in most situations.”
The offense does get a shot in the arm this week with the return of two true freshmen, slot receiver C.J. Worton, an active playmaker with great hands, and running back/B position/slot receiver Brandon Powell who’s quickness and athleticism make him a match up problem for linebackers, nickel backs, and safeties.
“C.J. [Worton] will be more involved in the slot this week,” according to Muschamp. “He’ll play in the slot. Absolutely. He’s a good football player and it’s good to get him back. He will play Saturday.”
Muschamp added, “Brandon Powell, getting him back and using him in some different roles will be very good for us. We wanted to expand his role in the off week, and we were unable to when he pulled his hamstring. But he looks great.”
One player who hasn’t struggled this season is junior running back Matt Jones who had another 100 yard game against Tennessee and has continued to separate himself from Kelvin Taylor and Mack Brown. He’s played very strong in his return from a season ending knee injury last year. He appears to get stronger as the game goes on and that helps get the play action and zone read going as well.
“I think it’s pretty obvious to everyone in that ballgame Matt Jones gets heavy as the game goes and he ran extremely well,” Muschamp said.
However, Jones has been dealing with some knee swelling this week and is listed as a game time decision. Muschamp feels good about depth at the position with Taylor, Brown, redshirt freshman Adam Lane, and Powell.
“I’ve got confidence in Kelvin [Taylor}. I’ve got confidence in Mack Brown,” Muschamp said.
“And they’re both competitive guys and they both want to play, but there’s one ball.”
“Adam Lane has been over repping with our guys the last couple of days just in case, a guy that I have tremendous confidence in as well. Talk about a hard guy to tackle, a low center of gravity, a strong, tough back who catches the ball well out of the backfield. And then you add Brandon Powell to the mix, a guy who’s going to get some snaps Saturday in some different roles. So we’re excited about that position.”
Another unit that has played well, perhaps somewhat surprisingly considering depth and injury issues, is the offensive line. A unit that has been much maligned the last few seasons it has quietly become a strength as the season has progressed.
While they haven’t been mistake free, particularly in blitz pick up at times, they have been fairly solid especially in the run game. Max Garcia has really stepped up and played well moving over to center this season and redshirt freshman Rod Johnson has impressed stepping into the lineup at right guard. Starting left guard D.J. Humphries struggled a little in his return from injury against Tennessee but that appears to be more rust than anything which should cause alarm for fans.
“I’ve been pleased with his [Humphries’] practice so far this week,” Muschamp said. “Chaz [Green] played well at right tackle. Rod [Johnson] gave up one thing on an inside stunt that was a critical play for us there in the game, but continues to improve and get better. He’s going to continue to take steps forward and be a very valuable member of our offensive line. David Sharpe continues to improve, so we feel pretty comfortable where we are as we move forward this season, especially when you get in this run in the season where there are going to be some injuries and things that happen. Right now Trip [Thurman] has done some nice things, Tyler [Moore]. Trenton [Brown] played his best game Saturday and Max [Garcia] is playing extremely well for us at center.”
Outside of Jones, the Gators are as healthy offensively as they’ve been all season. Perhaps a return home to the Swamp against a young, reeling LSU team will be cathartic for these Gators and help to jump start the offense.
Defensively, the Gators improved dramatically against Tennessee from how they played against Kentucky and Alabama. The defense, without starting defensive tackle Leon Orr and linebacker Michael Taylor, held the Tennessee rushing game in check (28 total yards rushing including sacks), kept constant pressure on quarterback Justin Worley sacking him 5 times, forcing two awful interceptions, and a game changing fumble, and held the Vols to only 3 field goals total allowing the struggling Gators offense to make a late game charge to victory.
“Defensively, it was a total team effort,” Muschamp said of the win over Tennessee. “We had eight red zone snaps, had negative 11 yards, three incompletions, an interception and a sack, so I think our guys played extremely well. We made it a one-dimensional game, we were able to get pressure on the quarterback with four guys rushing, three guys at times. We picked our spots to pressure and I thought D.J. [Durkin] did a good job and our defensive staff.”
Junior starting Buck end Dante Fowler was his usual disruptive self, but it was a youth movement that really stood out on Saturday. Redshirt sophomore Bryan Cox, Jr. got his first start at defensive end in place of Jonathan Bullard, who slid inside to replace injured Leon Orr, and had a monster game with three sacks and five solo tackles. He stayed in the Tennessee backfield all day and helped the Gators finally generate a consistent pass rush with their three and four down lineman.
“Bryan Cox had a great day,” Muschamp said of his performance against Tennessee. “Bryan went through a very tough time with his grandfather last week and managing that situation.”
Not to be outdone, true freshman Jalen Tabor got his first start at corner opposite All American Vernon Hargreaves III and had a monster game as well with five tackles (4 solo), 1 tackle for loss, a sack, a forced fumble, and a pass break up. The staff has been looking for someone to step up at corner since losing three of their top four after last season. Looks like Tabor may have won the job. For now that is.
“Jalen Tabor, for a freshman, had an outstanding, for any player, had an outstanding game,” Muschamp said of his performance against the Vols.
Adding, “I hope he’s that productive [against LSU]. That would be nice, but not many times are you going to come off the edge on a blitz and nobody blocks you. He played the deep ball well. We outnumbered them in the box and they took a shot at the end zone in the red zone. I thought he made a really nice play against a very good player and a very good throw. He had a couple opportunities to defend balls. The first third down I thought was a very good play, outstanding coverage. I think he’s a guy who just continues to improve. That’s the natural progression of a young player. I want to see improvement week to week, really day to day. And that’s where I think I see him headed.”
Another true freshman who’s playing well has been Duke Dawson who has been splitting time at safety, nickel, and dime so far this season.
“One of the hardest things for a young player to understand is the importance of practice,” Muschamp responded when asked specifically about Dawson and Tabor. “They’ve been better than anyone they’ve ever played against, so they didn’t have to work hard in practice and they can show up for the game and flip it on and everything works and goes well for them. That’s not the way it works at this level.”
” In Duke’s case especially, he has practiced better. He has come out and has had consistently good practices to build confidence to put himself in that situation too, and I thought he played well. He did some nice things. There are some things we need to clean up, but for a first start on the road in that environment against a pretty good throwing football team, I was proud of him.”
Longtime Gator sports announcer Larry Vettel was impressed enough by the play of Dawson and Tabor to tweet the following:
Redshirt freshman safety Keanu Neal also continues to impress in his first season as a starter consistently making big hits and big plays including the game sealing interception against Tennessee as they were driving late with the Gators clinging to a 10-9 lead.
In his media session on Wednesday Muschamp singled out Neal as a Ball Hawk Award winner, calling him a guy
“who continues to play outstanding football. The interception at the end was a big time play,” Muschamp said.
One player who has struggled much so far this season has been junior safety/nickle back Marcus Maye. He’s had numerous issues and breakdowns covering the slot receivers. His poor play continued into the first half against Tennessee leading ESPN recruiting analyst Derek Tyson to tweet:
“Marcus Maye has no business covering slot receivers. Ever”.
The tweet has since been deleted.
Maye did recover, however, to have a much better second half against Tennessee even being credited by coach Muschamp on Wednesday.
“Well I think in four games [Marcus Maye] did play his best ballgame [against Tennessee],” Muschamp said. “We lost our eyes in a situation where we always tell our players in an injury situation, stay down. We had a substitution deal on the wheel route on their sideline and that wasn’t all Marcus’ fault. We had two situations where we should’ve slid the defender underneath and forced the ball high. And two of them were pretty good throws.”
“Now the interception to end the game, Keanu Neal is going to get the credit for it but [Marcus] is in underneath coverage in what we call a trail position, which elevates the ball and Keanu has an opportunity to intercept it and that’s what I call a caused interception. We need to continue to work on eye control. That’s the biggest issue we have right now. In man coverage, unfortunately, some players like to stare at the quarterback, and they’re going to stare at the quarterback and watch him complete passes. In man coverage, you have to cover the man and what I talk about is working in phase with the receiver in order to play the ball. I’ve seen tremendous improvement from him and we’re expecting tremendous improvement to continue.”
The defense indeed played well, perhaps their best performance of the season, against Tennessee. It remains to be seen if that was merely an aberration against a young Vol offense or if they’ve turned the corner after giving up numerous explosive plays in the passing game in successive weeks against Kentucky and Alabama. Offensively, they still have a ways to go with Jeff Driskel as the quarterback. Gator Nation is optimistically hoping that the new lease on life will prompt him to focus better and play with more of a sense of urgency.
Either way the team is circling the wagons around Jeff and is confident that the offense will play better at home against LSU this Saturday. For Jeff’s sake and for Coach Muschamp’s sake, they had certainly better.