As injuries mount, Jeff Driskel must step up as the Gators’ leader in 2013

Photo: Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Photo: Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Jeff Driskel was once the No. 1-rated quarterback in the entire nation. He presumably chose to play at Florida over a slew of other schools for two reasons: He had wanted to play for Urban Meyer, and he wanted to leave Gainesville three or four years later known as the right-handed version of Tim Tebow.

If that sentence doesn’t make it abundantly clear, allow us to spell it out a bit more clearly: The 6-foot-4, 237-pounder harbored high aspirations. Now entering his junior year, he still does.

Except Meyer is no longer in The Swamp. He has been replaced by a run-heavy, grind-it-out coach in Nick Saban disciple Will Muschamp.

[Watch: Chris Fowler tells Urban Meyer other coaches want to punch him]

The weapons surrounding Tebow — guys such as Percy Harvin, Aaron Hernandez, Riley Cooper and David Nelson — have all gone onto the NFL (well, let’s not get into Hernandez right now, shall we?). Those stars have been replaced by Quinton Dunbar, Solomon Patton and Latroy Pittman – not exactly future first-round NFL Draft choices, unfortunately.

Tebow’s offensive line boasted two First Team All-Americans in the Pouncey twins. Driskel expected to have Jon Halapio and Chaz Green at right guard and tackle, respectively. However, Halapio is still recovering from a torn pectoral that will keep him out until at least Week 3 and Green recently tore his labrum and will require surgery. He is out for the year, as is wide receiver Andre Debose. The fifth year senior tore his ACL during camp.

We are not comparing the game play of Tebow to Driskel. We are not saying Driskel has to win a Heisman Trophy in 2013.

However, for the first time since he arrived on campus, we are saying that Driskel must step up and into a starring role offensively.

Photo:  Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Photo: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

When Driskel trotted onto the field against Bowling Green to open the 2012 season, he did so spread out at wide receiver. He and fellow sophomore Jacoby Brissett had duked it out all offseason to see which of the two would earn the starting spot. Neither differentiated enough from the other, forcing Muschamp and offensive coordinator Brent Pease to play both in Week 1.

Driskel won the job by showing off the type of mobility the team needed with a relatively weak offensive line. However, with a senior running back behind him in Mike Gillislee, Driskel was not asked to do very much with his arm.

He wound up passing for 1,646 yards, 12 touchdowns and five interceptions. He tacked on another 408 yards and four scores on the ground. Gillislee very much led the way with 1,152 yards and 10 scores.

Gillislee graduated to the NFL, leaving Driskel without yet another weapon in 2013. Fans may point to star-in-the-making Matt Jones, and with good reason. However, Jones is another unproven commodity as a true sophomore. He has never carried a full workload at the collegiate level. While we have every reason to believe he will be more than capable, the 2013 campaign is already off to a rocky start. He sustained a “serious viral infection” during the spring and will be out the first week of the season.

The onus will be on Driskel to carry the offense to a win over Toledo, a team that won nine games a year ago. All eyes will be upon him to make sure Jones gets acclimated come Week 2 – and should he falter, Driskel must be there to put points up against what promises to be a fantastic Miami offense.

A year ago, Muschamp was able to hide Driskel’s deficiencies in the passing game with a smash-mouth rushing attack opponents did not believe the program was capable of following a dismal 2011 season. However, Driskel proved unable to read through progressions at times, holding onto the ball for far too long. He was sacked eight times in the comeback win over Texas A&M. Louisville hounded him all day long in the Sugar Bowl.

He is advertised as an elite, dual-threat athlete, one good enough to be drafted by the Boston Red Sox despite not having picked up a baseball bat in years.

However, he posted negative rushing yards in three games in 2012, and only a single-digit amount in three others.

Without question, Driskel must step up and be the leader of this Florida Gators football team, beginning in Week 1. Muschamp’s squad may not have a chance at overtaking Georgia as SEC East champions otherwise.

Now he just needs to make sure he can put up the types of numbers necessary to make it happen.

After all, no one wants to be “the next” anything, even if that means being compared to Tebow.

What Gators fans really want is the first, the best, Jeff Driskel.

Is Jeff Driskel a Heisman Trophy candidate?