Posted: 5:24 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 26, 2013
By Andy Hutchins
When, in the course of Internet events, things get so hectic as to require a single post about Florida football that stands in for what could've been several posts split up, that post shall be called Hot Reads.
I'm pretty confident that Jeff Driskel's the most polarizing Florida quarterback of my lifetime. John Brantley has few defenders; Tim Tebow has fewer critics; Chris Leak, the former holder of the belt, won over most fans with his performance in winning the 2006 national title; Rex Grossman wasn't beloved, but was certainly respected on Saturdays; Doug Johnson and Jesse Palmer didn't inspire the same hate Driskel does in some corners, though all three share a penchant for inconsistency; Danny Wuerffel is beloved; Shane Matthews became a legend late in his career. No one else is worth mentioning as a candidate.
But that polarized reaction to Driskel has made it hard to find middle ground on him. He's talented, certainly, and maybe a square peg in a round hole, given how his talents seem better suited to a more wide-open offense. Florida's efforts to tailor its offense to Driskel often go forgotten — seven of Driskel's 11 snaps came from the shotgun against Tennessee; Florida used a lot more shotgun against Louisville in the Sugar Bowl — because bad things happened, leading some critics of Driskel wishing on one hand that he had more freedom and on another that he did more to deserve freedom. Conventional wisdom said Driskel's legs should've been better utilized but that those plays might not have been worth the risk of injury ... and yet he suffered a serious injury on a pass play, and more minor dings on running plays.
Personally, I think Driskel was set to have a very big day against Tennessee before pressure helped force his pick. His throw to Trey Burton was nearly perfect; his bomb to Quinton Dunbar was fractionally underthrown, and Dunbar could have made that catch. Driskel did a nice job of extending a play and finding Dunbar for the day's first completion, but Dunbar had stepped out of bounds, which isn't Driskel's fault. That day, in fact, would probably have been bigger than the one Tyler Murphy had.
I liked what Murphy did, and wrote as much on Sunday, but even I'm surprised at how much over-the-top praise has come Murphy's way for a performance that was not as good as Driskel's performance against a better Tennessee team on the road last year. Driskel threw two touchdown passes in that game to Murphy's one on a screen pass — Driskel's dime to Jordan Reed is still his best throw as a Gator; his short pass that Frankie Hammond took to the house was more difficult than Murphy's touchdown pass to Solomon Patton — and he ran all over Tennessee just like Murphy did. Driskel's turnover woes have been his major bugaboo, and Murphy's relatively clean performance was a welcome change — but Florida's offense still fumbled three times after Murphy came in, even if the fumbles that Florida lost weren't fully Murphy's fault. The snap that hit Murphy in the face wasn't his mistake, but he deserves some responsibility for it, and he fumbled twice on Florida's first goal-line snap; Florida was lucky to recover the ball, and the loss on the play helped turn a good chance at a much-needed touchdown into a field goal try. His first three third down conversions came on a) a good desperation throw that could've been a disaster b) a scramble that really should've been a sack if not for poor tackling and c) another scramble that Murphy took quite a while to commit to. He made a bad throw that was almost fortuitously poor on a third down near midfield in the fourth quarter; had Tennessee picked it off (and a defender got his hands on it), the Vols would suddenly have been down 14 with very good field position and just under 10 minutes to go. His second of two fumbles on the day was also recovered, but it had everything to do with ball security — he literally held the ball where Hunter Joyer could knock it out by running by, something that would've been unforgivable had Florida not recovered and had Austin Hardin not missed a field goal afterward.
Those mistakes would also have registered as demerits had Driskel made them, but Murphy was being graded on a pair of curves: The At Least He's Not Driskel curve is an unfair one that will probably be in use to some degree for at least the rest of the year; the Just Win This Game curve is fairer, and Murphy did plenty to look good by that standard.
But Murphy was not far from having a bad day against the Vols, a very bad team, and that has been forgotten. I hope Murphy continues to impress and do things against the similarly below-average Kentucky and Arkansas teams he will face, but his goal has to be what Driskel's was throughout 2012 — just do enough to win — and yet he's already likely to get the benefit of the doubt from fans who didn't give it to Driskel despite him demonstrating 10 times in 2012 that he could do enough for Florida to win.
I don't really know that we can make any conclusions about the shake either quarterback has gotten for at least a little while longer, but Murphy's playing with house money right now, and many folks seem to be remembering only the last guy's losing bets. I hope that, when Murphy makes a bad decision or suffers a bad beat, as is inevitable, he gets treated better than Driskel did when his happened — both quarterbacks deserve better.
Driskel getting hurt before the Kentucky game had at least one silver lining for Florida: It will probably not need Murphy to go out and beat the Wildcats, merely to avoid losing the game. Dominique Easley getting hurt before Kentucky has a similar one for the Gators: While Florida is going to miss its best defensive player, it will probably not miss him much against Kentucky's offense.
Kentucky is getting the talent together to be a decent SEC team, but that talent is mostly on its way to Lexington or learning the ropes. Kentucky's 25th nationally in total offense, and 12th in yards per play but those numbers are inflated by 418 yards gained against Western Kentucky (154 on its final three drives, which all came with double-digit deficits that I assume came with soft coverages), a slew of big plays (four pass plays of 37 or more yards; three runs of 21 or more yards) against a woeful Miami of Ohio team, and more late success with a big deficit (199 of 376 yards on its final three drives) against Louisville. Yes, Neal Brown's Air Raid-derived offense could trouble the Gators, but Florida's got so much speed and pass-rushing ability, even without Easley, that it's unlikely that the Gators will be really lit up. And Easley's value to the rush defense is more likely to be missed, but Florida has defensive players behind him who play solid fundamental football, and options at tackle it can rotate through if one doesn't work.
As long as Florida doesn't put itself in a hole — the Gators are 1-for-3 in this respect this year — Florida should win pretty comfortably against a Kentucky team that may be better than Tennessee, but not a lot better. And winning comfortably gives players confidence, which helps when backups dot the starting lineups.
The silver linings for Driskel and Easley are harder to see than the ones for Florida. Easley, in particular, is likely to lose a lot with this injury: Though his play at his best is certainly well worth a first-round pick, it took him more than a year to fully recover from his first ACL tear — Easley's best game of the 2012 season, for my money, actually came in 2013, against Louisville — and tearing the ACL in his other knee, along with the meniscus, may leave NFL teams looking at Easley less as a prospect with talent than a question mark with a long road back and serious durability concerns. If Easley can't be at full go by Florida's Pro Day and the NFL Scouting Combine, which may be dicey given his slow return to form in 2012, this injury is likely to cost him millions of dollars.
It also costs him a chance to be remembered as a legend purely for what he did on the field at Florida. Easley will go down as one of the most beloved players in Florida history, and is now a mortal lock to get a huge ovation at his Senior Day, but this robs him of a chance to make a run at an SEC title in his senior season, and consigns his Florida career — which, to be clear, is almost assuredly over, as Easley would have to make an incredibly selfless and inadvisable decision to return for a redshirt senior year — as one marked by promise and potential that far outstripped production thanks to the cruel luck of injury.
Of course, Driskel's now been dinged by that cruel luck, as have fellow five-stars Ronald Powell and Andre Debose; Easley's been beset by it twice. Driskel and Easley join four other Gators who will spend the fall of 2013 and spring of 2014 rehabbing, and even if Easley's very unlikely to come back to Gainesville, he'll benefit from being in a boat with other folks betrayed by their bodies. Powell, by all accounts, came back with his head on straighter than before his injury; Easley seemed to mature from doing too much to controlling his burst after tearing his ACL, channeling his manic energy into chaos on the field and a practiced insanity off of it.
It is not fun in any way to be injured, especially seriously, but Driskel and Easley have a slew fellow Gators who have been or are injured to lean on in their recoveries for help and hope, and that's a really valuable thing for an athlete, especially a young one, to have. I have full faith that, though we may have seen the last of Easley dancing in orange and blue on the field, we haven't seen the last of him by a long shot — and I have faith that Driskel and the rest of the injured Gators are likely to come back as good or better than ever. It's a mean grind, rehabilitation, but players that took that Will Muschamp mentality of grinding to heart are better-prepared than most to handle it.