Jeff Driskel got his fill of the Georgia Bulldogs on the field in Jacksonville last fall. And he got a heavy dose of them again Tuesday at SEC Football Media Days.
The Florida Gators’ junior quarterback was asked several times by different reporters what he thought his team needed to do to get past the Bulldogs. As Driskel pointed out, the first part of that equation has been taken care of — Jarvis Jones has moved on to the NFL.
“I’m very, very, very glad to see him go,” Driskel said with a laugh. “He made millions of dollars off us.”
Driskel was also asked who had hit him the hardest since he’d been under center for the Gators. “Jarvis Jones hit me the hardest. And the most.”
Jones sacked Driskel three times last season, had 13 tackles overall and forced two fumbles – including the victory-preserving turnover in the final minutes – in Georgia’s 17-9 win last season. In two seasons against the Gators, Jones piled up 19 tackles, seven sacks and three forced fumbles.
But Jones is gone. He was selected as a junior by the Pittsburgh Steelers with the 17th pick of the NFL draft, one of six defensive players drafted off Georgia’s defense.
For the Gators, that is like the door to the SEC Eastern Division has been cracked open. Georgia has won the last two games in the series. Not coincidentally, the Bulldogs have represented the East in the SEC Championship game the last two seasons.
It has been like a role reversal from the 1990s and early 2000s, when the Gators were dominating the series.
“I feel like we’re really, really close,” senior guard John Halapio said.
As a program, Florida has a reputation as a high-octane, high-scoring bunch. But that hasn’t been the case in two seasons under coach Will Muschamp. The Gators’ defense has been exceptional under the former defensive coordinator, but their offense has been something well short of that.
Last season, Florida finished dead last in the SEC in passing offense (146.3 ypg), 12th in total offense (334 ypg) and 10th in scoring (29.5 ppg). In 2011, the Gators ranked 105th nationally in total offense and averaged only 25.46 points per game. Meanwhile, Florida has not had a 600-yard receiver since 2009. It’s a far cry from what college football is accustomed to seeing come out of The Swamp.
“We need to be more efficient in throwing the football,” Muschamp said Tuesday. “I’m not telling you anything you don’t know. We have to create more explosive plays for ourselves. I think we did that throughout the spring. It’s been an emphasis on our staff, as well as scoring touchdowns in the red zone.”
Last year Muschamp brought in offensive coordinator Brent Pease from Boise State. This year he hired ousted Kentucky head coach Joker Phillips to oversee wide receivers.
But that doesn’t mean Florida is going to deviate dramatically from the path in which Muschamp has led it. He remains he strong believer in running the football and playing good defense, and those will remain the cornerstones of his plan.
Last year Florida handed the ball to tailback Mike Gillislee 244 times for 1,152 yards. He’s moved on but the Gators believe they have a star in the making in sophomore Matt Jones. He’s backed up by Atlanta resident Mack Brown and touted prospect Kelvin Taylor, son of former UF star Fred Taylor.
“Matt Jones is going to have a phenomenal year,” guard Halapio said. “I had a conversation with Matt this morning and he told me he wanted to break Emmitt Smith’s (school) record. He said ‘help me do that and I’m going to help you.’ We’re going to help him try to reach that goal.”
But balance is key in the treacherous SEC and the Gators have to be able to throw the football. It will start with protecting the quarterback. They gave up 39 sacks a year ago, most of them of Driskel and several involving Jarvis Jones.