The first University of Florida team to eye Jeff Driskel didn't play in The Swamp. These guys actually competed a few doors down—on the baseball diamond.
As a Hagerty High School sophomore, a young Driskel took his first recruiting visit to Gainesville courtesy of Kevin O'Sullivan, the head coach of the Gators baseball team. At the time, Driskel was a coveted dual-sport athlete in his hometown of Oviedo, Fla. A physical 6'4, 225-lb. high-school Driskel boasted a strong arm and pristine speed, a combination that allowed him to dominate as a power-hitting outfielder and a star quarterback for the Huskies.
Back then, it seemed Driskel's commitment didn't lie with one sport more than it did the other.
“It didn’t matter what uniform he was wearing, he was willing to compete," said Jered Goodwin, Driskel's Hagerty High baseball coach. "If it was baseball season, it was baseball season. If it was football, it was football. There was never a time he wanted to be at the other place."
Goodwin also coached Driskel on the FTB Mizuno travel baseball team for three years. It was for the AAU baseball team and prep football camps that Driskel divvied up his talents in outside of Hagerty High.
During his time as a college recruit, Driskel was looking to commit to a school where he could continue to play in both arenas. In a February 2010 article, The Orlando Sentinel's Chris Hays wrote, "Driskel will not pledge to a college that will not allow him to play baseball, a situation that most coaches Driskel has talked to have endorsed."
When he announced his commitment to the UF football team in April 2010, Driskel had intentions to play both football and baseball for the Gators. Just two months after his announcement, Driskel attended the Perfect Game USA 2010 National Showcase at Tropicana Field to further flash his baseball skills.
The stats from his Perfect Game player profile show Driskel threw 94 mph from the outfield and ran a 6.51 in the 60. His best grade from the showcase was a 10, the highest. The Perfect Game defines a 10 as a "potential very high draft pick and/or Elite level college prospect."
Despite Driskel's doubling ability on the baseball field on the gridiron, eventually, something had to give.
Prior to his senior-year baseball season, Driskel walked into the Huskies weight room to talk to Goodwin about heading to Florida a semester early. Goodwin recalled their conversation:
"I don't want to let you down by going to school early," Driskel said.
"Well, what do you want to do?" Goodwin asked him.
"I want to be the quarterback at the University of Florida."
"Hey man, I’ll be there. Go do it."
With that, Driskel opted to bypass his senior baseball season and obviously, the MLB Draft. Goodwin said he thinks Driskel would've been drafted in the top two rounds as a $1.5 million pick, if that's the direction he chose to take.
"It's just one of those things where I think his first love was baseball, but the thing he grew to love more was football," Goodwin said.
Though Driskel trekked up to Gainesville in January to tackle his first semester, he came back down to Hagerty for the baseball team's senior night. It was a special night in Goodwin's young coaching career because Driskel was part of the first class of athletes Goodwin had been with all four years.
Even now, Driskel and Goodwin maintain a strong relationship as Goodwin refers to Florida's junior QB as a "little brother." Goodwin said he's been a Florida Gators fan since he was 3 years old and has been to nearly every UF home game since Driskel's been in orange and blue. He even made the trip to the Sugar Bowl in January.
"I'm just a fan of the kid," Goodwin said. "I don't care what he plays."
This summer, the Red Sox proved they were fans of Driskel, too. Florida's QB made headlines after the Sox drafted him in the 29th round, raising talk that perhaps Driskel's baseball career wasn't over after all.
When he found out he was drafted, Driskel was hog hunting with his girlfriend and former UF cheerleader Tarin Moses.
Goodwin said he got a text from Driskel about it shortly after—something to the effect of a simple... what?
His former coach replied jokingly.
"Dude, sweet! I told you you were going to be a big draft pick if you would've played your senior year!"
Driskel asked him what he thought this all meant. Honestly, Goodwin didn't know.
"I said, 'I know there is football players that’ve signed non-participation deals that’ve still played football, that’s just going to be up to you. I’m sure your parents are going to investigate it more than anything else.' And of course, that’s what happened," Goodwin said.
A lot said about his signing a non-compete contract with the Boston Red Sox. Jeff came in my office after Boston drafted him and said, 'Coach, this is the deal. They want to sign me. If I ever want to play baseball, I have to play for the Red Sox. Haven't picked up a bat in two years and I have no intention of playing baseball, but they're willing to cut me a check. By NCAA rules, it's legal.'
I said, 'Jeff, if you were my son, I'd tell you to sign the contract.'
His commitment level to the University of Florida is outstanding. But he had a great opportunity there with a great organization. If he ever does want to pick up a bat or a glove, certainly being a part of the Red Sox organization would be outstanding.
On July 4th, Driskel confirmed his decision to sing a non-compete contract with the MLB team:
“There’s no losing situation for the Red Sox by doing this," Goodwin said. "If he ends up coming, they got a million-dollar deduction on him and if he doesn’t come, they didn’t lose anything that way, either.”
While Driskel was both surprised and humbled by the whole thing, it caused plenty of shock elsewhere, too. Driskel's friend and former Florida Gators pitcher Johnny Magliozzi and Driskel played against each other in high school showcases. Magliozzi, a Boston native, was drafted in the 17th round to the New York Mets.
"Honestly, I was pretty shocked a couple kids didn't get drafted and he did," Magliozzi admitted.
As a life-long fan of the Sox, Magliozzi said he was excited they were the organization to draft Driskel. He added that he knew the organization was good about taking its time to develop its players.
In recent drafts, the Red Sox have been quick to pick up Gators. In 2012, three of Florida baseball's nine players drafted signed deals with the Red Sox. Left-handed pitcher Brian Johnson went the highest of the trio as the org's first-round pick, going 31st.
Johnson reached out to Driskel on Twitter the day the Red Sox called his name.
The Gators football player has made it plenty clear his heart lies in football. He wants a future in professional sports, and if it goes his way, that'll be with the NFL.
During SEC Media Days, Driskel said, "Hopefully football works out and I never play baseball again. It's nice to have playing for the Red Sox as a good backup plan."
However, right now, Driskel is experiencing a career hiccup, resulting from a season-ending injury during Florida's win over Tennessee Sept. 21st. Driskel had surgery on his fractured right fibula on Sept. 25th.
As close as Goodwin and Driskel are, the baseball coach was at Driskel's house when he got injured, and they talked on the phone before he went into surgery.
On Thursday, Goodwin said Driskel was feeling good, was obviously experiencing some soreness and swelling. He said doctors expect Driskel to be ready by spring.
"He’s just gone through a little bad luck," Goodwin said. "I got all the confidence in the world he’s going to rehab harder and watch film and he’ll be back strong in the spring.”
Despite the fact Goodwin was Driskel's baseball coach, he maintains Driskel is, indeed, a football player. That's the route he wanted to go and it's the route he's excelling in, too.
Driskel played in five games for the Gators as a true freshman quarterback, starting at the spot the following year. As a sophomore in 2012, the Oviedo native lead the Gators to an 11-2 season. He already holds the record at Florida for the most rushing yards for a QB in a single game, rushing 11 times for 177 yards against Vanderbilt. He passed Tim Tebow's 166 yards on 27 attempts versus Ole Miss in 2007.
"I don’t think anybody realizes the passion that he has," Goodwin said. "You can mark my words on this, he’s going to be a Gator great before it’s all said and done. It’s going to be fun to watch over the next year or two, you know, what he’s able to do.”