- Mike DiRocco, ESPN Staff Writer
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NEW ORLEANS -- Before Alabama's AJ McCarron was a Heisman Trophy candidate, the nation's top-rated passer and the unquestioned leader of a team playing for a national championship, he was just another young quarterback.
He wasn't asked to win games. He was told just to do his job and not make mistakes, to let the defense and running game take care of things.
He was Jeff Driskel.
An impressive performance in the BCS National Championship was McCarron's springboard to a phenomenal 2012 season. Driskel appears to be on a similar path heading into Florida's Allstate Sugar Bowl matchup with Louisville on Jan. 2. Is he four quarters away from starting to become one of the best quarterbacks in the country in 2013?
"He's got potential to be one of the great ones here," UF offensive tackle Chaz Green said. "He can do it with his feet [and] with his arm. He's a smart guy. He can read defenses. So sky's the limit."
After winning the quarterback competition with Jacoby Brissett, Driskel had a solid first season as the Gators' starter. He completed 64.8 percent of his passes for 1,471 yards, 11 touchdowns and only three interceptions. He rushed for 404 yards and four touchdowns. Most importantly, he led Florida to an 11-1 record.
However, the 6-foot-4, 237-pound sophomore was largely unimpressive. Coach Will Muschamp and offensive coordinator Brent Pease never put too much on Driskel's shoulders. He threw more than 20 passes in a game just four times and never more than 27. He threw for more than 200 yards just twice and fewer than 100 yards four times. Driskel, at times, struggled with holding onto the ball too long, or not throwing it away, and taking a sack.
He was the stereotypical game manager.
And he was just like McCarron in 2011, when McCarron beat out Phillip Sims for the starting job and completed 67 percent of his passes for 2,400 yards, 16 touchdowns and five interceptions in the regular season. He drove coach Nick Saban crazy with his inconsistency, though. He missed open receivers and never even saw some wide-open throws. He failed to see one that would have resulted in a touchdown in regulation in a 9-6 overtime loss to LSU that sent Saban into a fit on the sideline.
But something clicked during the Crimson Tide's bowl practices leading up to the rematch with LSU in the national title game. When the Tigers smothered Bama's running game, the coaching staff turned to McCarron, who responded by completing 23 of 34 passes for 234 yards. He didn't throw a touchdown pass in the 21-0 victory, but he didn't turn the ball over either and was named the game's offensive MVP.
All McCarron did this season was set the Alabama record for touchdown passes in a season (26 and counting), continue a streak of consecutive passes without an interception that ended at 291 and lead the nation in passing efficiency. All of these are directly related to his struggles last season, Saban said.
"He just made steady improvement last year, and I think most of that has come with confidence and experience and learning," Saban said on the SEC teleconference. "Sometimes you learn the best when you make bad plays. It's a process that most young players have to go through. AJ's matured really nicely, and you become more effective as a player because of that."
Driskel suffered through the process this season. He threw just one interception in his first seven games but turned the ball over four times against Georgia (two interceptions, two fumbles) in the only game the Gators lost. Like McCarron, Driskel has played his best football at the end of the season.
He completed 15 of 23 passes for 147 yards and one touchdown in UF's 37-26 victory against Florida State, whose defense ranked in the top five nationally in the four major statistical categories. He reportedly looked pretty good in the Gators' bowl practices in Gainesville, Fla., before arriving in New Orleans.
"Any time you have practices where you're looking at yourself rather than an opponent, you have time to improve," Driskel said. "I think I've been improving all year long, but these extra practices have really helped.
"During the season, it's all game plan. You're looking at the other team and not yourself. So [bowl practice] has given us time to look at mechanics, go back to little things instead of looking at the other team."
Driskel has benefited from not splitting reps 50-50 with Brissett like he did in the spring and fall camp. Pease said Driskel's understanding of the offense is better, he is continuing to improve knowing when to throw the ball away and not take a sack, and he has gotten better at reading defenses.
"We've really challenged our young players to step forward and understand this is another spring practice for them," Muschamp said. "It's another 15 days of practice, so they have a great opportunity to springboard themselves into the offseason program and really put a mark on our mind as a staff of where they are as a player.
"Certainly Jeff is getting more turns and reps as a young player and a young quarterback. There's no question he's going to benefit."
And maybe mimic McCarron.
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