Florida Gators first year offensive coordinator Kurt Roper has seen and coached his fair share of quarterbacks. Roper coached Eli Manning who won the Maxwell Award and was the SEC Offensive Player of the Year as a senior at Ole Miss.
At 6-4, 230 pounds and with a rocket arm, Jeff Driskel may be the most physically gifted player that Roper has coached at the quarterback position. In fact, Driskel might have even have been too big when Roper first arrived. The new offensive coordinator challenged Driskel to shed some pounds.
“When I first got there his weight was 240,” Roper said. “If you’re 230 pounds you’re a big guy. So that was kind of the weight that we talked about, being able to run the football, be elusive.”
Roper used Manning as an example for Driskel. Manning would come into fall camp around 225 pounds and enter the season somewhere slightly below 220. Driskel is, obviously, a very different style of quarterback than Manning, but he can still hold his own at his new, slightly lighter weight.
However, Driskel’s size, while an advantage, isn’t the first thing that sticks out to Roper about the quarterback. Or any quarterback for that matter.
“The first thing that I want is a guy that is mentally tough, that you can’t shake him,” Roper said when explaining what he looks for in a signal caller. “It doesn’t matter if the crowd boos him running off the field. It doesn’t matter if you have a four-interception game. It doesn’t matter if you go on social media and everybody tells you, ‘You’re not any good.’”
You can challenge some of his decision-making, but mental toughness isn’t a question when it comes to Driskel. That was clear the last time you saw Driskel on the field in orange and blue. A broken fibula brought Driskel to all fours, yet, when Florida’s medical staff urged him to sit tight and get carted off the field, Driskel refused.
“Looking back on it, I don’t know how smart it was,” Driskel said with a short chuckle. “But I don’t know, just being a competitor I didn’t want to get carted off the field after a pick-six.”
His toughness earned the respect of his coaches and teammates but Roper wasn’t in Gainesville at the time. He was busy leading the Duke Blue Devil offense to their most successful season in decades. So when Roper arrived, he wanted to see if his quarterback was mentally tough enough and confident enough to handle being the leader of a team.
“There’s one guy in this world that can take Jeff Driskel’s confidence from him and that’s Jeff Driskel. It’s not me as a coach. It’s not anybody else. And if he will buy into that and believe that, now you’ve got a mentally tough guy that can go play the game. And I think that’s very important.”
The toughness is there, but is the confidence. Driskel is 12-4 as a starting quarterback but he’s been criticized for his decision-making and for too many turnovers (14 TD to 10 INT in his career.) But Roper, who’s coached confident guys like Manning and Houston Texans running back Arian Foster, doesn’t see any wavering in Driskel’s confidence.
“He’s a confident guy. He’s got a great look in his eye. He’s a bright-eyed guy. I don’t think he’s ever lacked confidence,” Roper said of Driskel. “I think where you see the confidence growing is in understanding what we’re doing offensively. The more understanding you have, the faster you can make decisions, the faster you can play, which you have to be able to play fast and be decisive.”
Despite a game where turnovers created a loss in Miami and his abrupt departure against Tennessee, Driskel insists he never lost confidence in his team or himself.
“I don’t think we’ve ever lacked confidence. I think that our confidence is higher now than it was before just because we’ve done some things to boost our confidence up,” said Driskel. “We’ve made a lot of big plays against a really good defense. When that happens, you start to feel a little bit more excited and a little bit more confident. I think that we have a good thing going on offense and we just have to keep getting better.”
The offense has looked better in practice — and that’s against what should be a pretty good defense this year.
Driskel is checking off the boxes that Roper laid out for him. Physical size? Check. Toughness? Check? Grasp and command of the offense? Check.
The next box he needs to check off will give Roper his first win at the University of Florida.
It’s not the last box Driskel wants to check off in 2014, either.