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Driskel down, but Gators not out

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Published:   |   Updated: September 22, 2013 at 08:25 AM

GAINESVILLE — The University of Florida’s football season is now in the hands of a quarterback who, prior to Saturday, had never thrown a pass for the Gators.

The Gators’ hopes now rest with a guy who had committed to Temple University — choosing the Owls over Syracuse and UConn — before sending his film (on a lark) to Urban Meyer’s office in Gainesville.

He’s redshirt junior Tyler Murphy of Wethersfield, Conn., possessor of an unfamiliar name, a surprisingly poised game, a love of the film room, the respect of his teammates and now the target of intense curiosity by the Gator Nation.

“I never really visualized standing up here at this podium,’’ said Murphy during postgame interviews following UF’s 31-17 dispatching of the Tennessee Volunteers.

Gator fans probably never visualized it, either.

It was supposed to be Jeff Driskel or bust. But after Driskel telegraphed a first-quarter screen pass right into the waiting arms of Tennessee’s Devaun Swafford, who returned it for a 62-yard touchdown and a 7-0 Vols lead, UF’s quarterback went down with a season-ending broken fibula during the collision with an onrushing lineman.

It sure seemed like “bust’’ at that point.

A couple of things:

UF’s season isn’t over. Its defense, so far, is championship-caliber. Most weekends, the Gators could be in business by just generating two or three touchdowns, then avoiding catastrophic mistakes.

Murphy, undoubtedly, will be anointed as a savior by some, although it’s much too early to say how he will progress, and Tennessee’s program has regressed to awful status.

But the kid looked … pretty darn good.

Especially considering he had never taken a snap, not one.

He was alert, prepared, mobile and smart with the ball. He threw a nice deep third-and-10 pass down the sideline, hitting Quinton Dunbar on a perfectly threaded 31-yarder, and made multiple plays with his legs, including a 7-yard touchdown where he was sweeping left, stopped on a dime to freeze the defender, and dived through an opening into the end zone.

His numbers were more than respectable — eight of 14 passing for 134 yards, plus 10 carries for 84 yards.

“I thought he did great,’’ Dunbar said. “He gets ready like he’s a starter. He wasn’t nervous at all. I’m not surprised, because we’ve seen this in practice.’’

Driskel’s early season performance was incredibly shaky after a five-turnover loss at Miami, then Saturday’s pick-six against Tennessee. But when he didn’t get up and waved to the sideline for assistance, everyone was shaken by the sight.

Because UF’s depth at quarterback was non-existent. Jacoby Brissett, who lost the starting job to Driskel last season, is sitting out this year after his transfer to N.C. State. Dual-threat QB Will Grier of Davidson, N.C., a prized recruit by all accounts, is finishing his high school season after committing to the Gators.

Murphy was the only real option. He has been on campus since the 2010 season, watching John Brantley, Jordan Reed, Trey Burton, Brissett and Driskel all taking turns at quarterback. He was beyond being an afterthought.

“It was in the back of my mind,’’ Murphy said when asked if he considered the possibility of finishing his UF career without ever throwing a game-day pass.

Friends and family urged him to transfer, and the Temple program of Steve Addazio, who recruited him to UF, seemed like a logical possibility.

But in a decision that might speak to Murphy’s character, he stayed.

“I’m not afraid of competition,’’ said Murphy, a state champion triple-jumper (46-7) in high school. “Even though I wasn’t playing, I felt like I was getting better. And you can’t beat a University of Florida degree.’’

Last season, he requested the inglorious task of running the scout-team offense, just so he might help the team.

“There aren’t many guys like that in our society,’’ Gators coach Will Muschamp said.

Now it’s Murphy’s show, beginning with Saturday night’s trip to Kentucky, a team UF has beaten each season since 1986. Down the line, there are games against LSU, Georgia, South Carolina and Florida State.

Now the Gators must be smart with the ball. Murphy creates big plays by running, but now that’s a scary proposition. The backup is redshirt freshman Skyler Mornhinweg (son of Marty), leading the collection of other guys who have never thrown a pass at UF.

The Gators’ defense, which allowed 215 yards to Miami and 220 to Tennessee, doesn’t seem to need much assistance. Sophomore defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. (St. Petersburg Lakewood) will get into the All-America discussion. He had three tackles for a loss, a sack, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. Freshman cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III (Wharton) appears to have an unlimited future.

What will UF’s offense offer?

How will Murphy follow up this opening act?

“It really hasn’t hit me yet,’’ Murphy said.

The Gators better hope that nothing else hits him — specifically, an angry opposing defensive lineman — because he’s suddenly carrying the program’s hopes. His anonymity is gone forever. The pressure could be withering. But he doesn’t seem to mind.

“One man’s misfortune is another man’s opportunity,’’ Muschamp said.

Murphy has the opportunity. Let’s see what he does with it.

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