THIBODAUX — Jeff Driskel leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees as a gaggle of recorder-toting reporters at the Manning Passing Academy circulated around the room in the bowels of John L. Guidry Stadium on Friday.
Wedged into the corner next to Nevada’s Cody Fajardo, the Florida quarterback’s audience was modest. Aside from being asked how the Gators have gotten over a January rout by Louisville in the Sugar Bowl, questions veered away from his mastery of Florida’s offense toward whether there’s a temptation to poke fun at coach Will Muschamp’s death glare.
“No,” Driskel said. “We let his kids do that.”
Fifteen feet away, Missouri’s James Franklin smiled politely through each variant of a simple question: How much pressure do the Tigers feel coming off a 5-7 debut campaign in the Southeastern Conference? And how concerned is he that his job is up for grabs?
“People can always say whatever they want to — good or better,” he said. “We’re just focused on the here and now, improving the chemistry on the team and getting better next year.”
The pair were two of the SEC’s worst quarterbacks statistically last season, but their evolutions carry the same underlying theme: The fates of the programs they lead hinge on their improved production this season.
For Florida, Driskel’s competency could be the difference in emerging from a three-team melee with South Carolina and Georgia to win the Eastern Division, while a healthy and entrenched Franklin might be the key to keeping veteran coach Gary Pinkel in his job.
CBS analyst Gary Danielson, who covers the SEC for the network, quickly tagged Driskel as “the key player in the league.”
“They won games by hiding the ball last year. I just don’t see that happening again,” he said. “They’re going to have to demand more this year our of him.”
And his opinion on Franklin and Missouri?
“They almost started believing the pundits saying they didn’t belong,” he said. “Missouri is not that much different than everybody else. They were in these games. Their attrition from injuries just decimated them. The quarterback felt it every week.”
Driskel’s trajectory is based on whether he can clench his hands more firmly on offensive coordinator Brent Pease’s pro-style system — one wildly divergent from the spread offense he was recruited to run under Urban Meyer. Last season, Muschamp and the Gators simply mitigated risk, running the ball on roughly 67 percent of first- and second-down plays, while Driskel’s 137.2 passing yards per game were the lowest among regular SEC starters.
When they did put the ball aloft, rarely did Driskel push it vertically down the field, notching only 12 completions of longer than 25 yards. He was frequently under duress and was sacked an SEC-leading 39 times.
“He’s hampered by everyone else on that team not knowing what they’re doing, either,” Danielson said. “They’ve got receivers running terrible routes. They’ve been running curves with their hands up for three years, offensive lineman that can’t pass block or pick up a blitz. It has been a total overhaul, and I’m not sure any quarterback would be successful in the first year.”
Driskel is confident the paramaters have changed in the offseason, one when he invested more time in film study and didn’t have a potential quarterback controversy with Jacoby Brissett — who transferred to N.C. State — leaving him less hesitant to tell Pease he needs help grasping a concept.
“If you’re unsure about what’s going on, you can admit that,” Driskel said. “You don’t feel embarrassed, so to speak. When you’re around someone more often, you can be more comfortable. Just being with him a whole other year really helps in that aspect.”
But if Driskel is secure enough in his job to secure a backup plan, Franklin is mired in a three-man derby to keep his job as Missouri’s starter.
Before spring practice, Pinkel opened the search up after Franklin struggled with shoulder and knee injuries along with a concussion that cost him three full games and parts of two others. Franklin only produced 1,562 passing yards, barely more than half of what he posted during a productive sophomore season.
Aside from the toll inflicted on his body, Franklin’s reputation was scuffed up when it was reported he declined a cortisone shot for an inflamed bursa sac in his right shoulder ahead of the Tigers’ game against Arizona State. The episode was only made worse when Pinkel said in a pregame interview that his quarterback didn’t want to play.
“The toughest thing for a quarterback to earn isn’t the fans’ belief, it’s not the players’ belief,” Danielson said. “It’s the coaches’ trust. Right now, Missouri does not trust him.”
Compounding the injuries, poor performance and experience gained in relief by backups Corbin Berkstresser and Maty Mauk, Franklin’s position is potentially tenuous heading into fall camp.
“It’s good, actually,” Franklin said of his relationship with his understudies. “Better than what you’d think for three guys that are competing for the same job. We’re still helping each other out. It’s not about our selfishness and who wants to play. It’s about what’s best for the team. That’s what matters.”
If Driskel’s line struggled to master pass protection, then Franklin’s front was hampered by injuries, with all but one starter missing time last season.
“It really affected us, and we can say that now,” Franklin said. “Whenever (an injury happened), it was like, ‘Our starter went down, or one of our corners went down, or our quarterback is down.’ We let that affect us as a whole, rather than understand a guy went down but that doesn’t mean we’re going to lose.”
Unlike Driskel’s situation, though, Missouri’s spread system is getting as much criticism as the operator in charge on Saturday. Over the course of last season, Pinkel often was asked why tweaks weren’t made to bolster protection for Franklin and whether it could withstand the rigors of facing rugged SEC defenses.
In November, longtime offensive coordinator Dave Yost resigned, and Pinkel tried to land former Tennessee coordinator Jim Chaney but saw him go to Arkansas. Instead, he promoted co-offensive line coach Josh Henson, a former LSU assistant, to oversee the the unit.
Danielson said he thinks a shift in mentality as much as scheme would benefit Missouri most.
“They need to play a little bit tougher brand of football, learn to be able to make first-down throws instead of finesse a touchdown throw all the time,” he said. “They need to get back more to basics, and this is probably good for Missouri.”