Florida Gators 2014 Positional Preview: Quarterbacks

In the lead-up to kickoff against Idaho, I’ll be taking my next few pieces to introduce, highlight, and analyze the groups of players that hold the key between Florida’s return to SEC prominence, or conversely, a banishing to the SEC cellar for 2014.

Quarterback

Well, there are two distinct camps of Gator fans on this position.

On one hand you have the fans who think there has never been a worse Florida QB than Jeff Driskel (conveniently forgetting John Brantley). They point to the “turnover machine” Driskel has seemed to be, and cite his 10 career interceptions as evidence. They recall the Miami debacle of 2013 where costly redzone fumbles doomed the Gators before they could even settle into an offensive rhythm. And, more often than not, they clamor for true freshman and highly touted dual threat recruit Will Grier to come in and be the next Danny Wuerffel.

This is the type that watches the SEC Network and says, “Why can’t we have Tebow back?”

And then there are people like me: people who believe that Jeff Driskel is a good quarterback.

No, he is not the next Shane Matthews, Rex Grossman or Tim Tebow, but he’s a quarterback that has led his team (in spite of former offensive coordinators Charlie Weis and Brent Pease) to an 12-3 record over the course of 2012 and part of 2013. He is capable with his legs and, contrary to belief, he can throw the ball too. In the spring game he was 18 for 33, with 171 yards, one TD, and no INT. Driskel is a spread QB finally playing for a spread coordinator. He’s never going to be a Heisman candidate or a starter in the NFL, that much I’ll concede, but he can win games.

Where Driskel needs to improve is on the medium slant patterns and the deep routes. On slants (those routes that have presented so many issues in the past), that means throwing to a receiver in the slot (and maybe even in coverage) rather than to the only open guy downfield, where the pass may be picked off in open space by an opportunistic cornerback. Kurt Roper must convince Driskel that sometimes throwing into traffic is the best option, especially if the receiver can find a hole (I’m looking at you, Andre Debose).

When Driskel goes for a long pass downfield, he must work on his accuracy. Keep the ball in bounds where his receivers have a chance to go up and get it. Trust will be the key here. Trust between Driskel and his receivers, knowing each plays a role in the success or the failure of the offense.

In Driskel’s defense, he’s not had a go-to receiver in his time at Florida. However, that should change this year with Ahmad Fullwood, Demarcus Robinson, CJ Worton, Jake McGee and a bevy of talented downfield threats.

There is not a better SEC quarterback in open space with his legs than Driskel. In 2012, he ran the ball 118 times, 28 of which produced first downs of 10+ yards. Driskel has 408 career rushing yards, but in this new offense I predict he easily eclipses 600 in 2014 alone. If the offensive line can stay healthy and give him the time he needs to make good decisions, he should be on track to bring Florida back to respectability.

Last year we learned a few things about the Gators’ offense. One, they hardly had any. And two, there wasn’t much development of backup QB’s. Tyler Murphy and Skyler Mornhinweg did their best with what was given to them, but it wasn’t close to enough.

Murphy has since transferred to Boston College, and Mornhinweg is back to compete with freshmen Will Grier and former FSU commit Treon Harris. Mornhinweg  looked much-improved and spring practice, and has the experience of four starts under his belt for the upcoming season. Harris has shined during fall camp thus far. While, according to Roper, Grier needs to work on his timing, accuracy and decision making, which is a natural learning curve.

My prediction, therefore, is that Harris earns the backup job since he is a perfect fit for the Roper offense, Mornhinweg holds onto the third string, and Grier is redshirted in order to develop into a more polished NCAA quarterback.

That’s no slight to Grier. Harris is simply a better fit in the up-tempo offense right now, as Grier appears to have a greater adjustment from the high school level.  And Mornhinweg conjures up far too many bad memories (though, I really don’t blame him personally) for fans to hear his name over the loudspeaker at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium ever again. Myself included. He reminds me of 2013, and that’s just not ok.

Harris is an FSU flip whom the Seminoles envisioned succeeding Jameis Winston. He is both a major threat with his arm and with his legs. Think: Johnny Manziel, but with less of the showmanship. And keep this in mind: Harris transferred to Florida knowing that another QB (Grier) was already coming. I like that attitude, and think it will serve the Gators well going forward.

This is the time for Driskel to shine (which I think he will in an offense finally suited to him), as well as his backup (who will likely see playing time during the first three games). In order for Florida to return to prominence, the Gators absolutely must see more production, development, and improvement from the QB position in 2014.