General : : General
Monday, December 31, 2012

Florida QB has big league feel

Patrick Ebert        
Photo: Perfect Game

For sports fans, the holidays are always celebrated amidst the numerous college football bowl games. While it can be argued that there are too many games, and in essence, teams that qualify, the sheer number of contests extends this sports holiday more than a week into the New Year.

Even though baseball isn't as easy to come by during the winter months, aside from two back-to-back Perfect Game showcases filled with impressive ballplayers, there are also several players on the gridiron that once had legitimate professional baseball aspirations.

The most notable of which this season is Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel.

Driskel's athleticism sets him apart from even his peers in the high-flying Southeastern Conference, a conference that has claimed each of the last six National Championships, including two by the Florida Gators. While the Gators can't claim this year's championship, they ride into the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 2 against Louisville ranked as the No. 4 team in the nation according to the Associated Press.

A win could push the Gators to a No. 2 finish nationally depending on how the other bowl games shake out, which could allow Driskel to attain national fame much like his predecessor under center at Florida, Tim Tebow.

While Driskel wasn't available for comment due to his preparation for the Sugar Bowl, his high school and travel ball coach, Jered Goodwin, was quick to offer praise for his former player during this past weekend's National Underclass Showcase – Main Event in Fort Myers, Fla.

I'm still really really close to him,” Goodwin said reflecting on his relationship with Driskel. “I'm actually going to see him (play) in New Orleans. He's an awesome kid. Still is. Very humble kid. Athletically he could have done whatever he wanted. If he wanted to be a professional baseball player he would have been a professional baseball player.”

Baseball has been able to win over several prominent national two-sport stars in recent years, most notably of which are former quarterbacks Zach Lee, Archie Bradley and Bubba Starling. All three are among the top prospects in the game, and were all first round picks that received multi-million dollar signing bonuses from the Dodgers, Diamondbacks and Royals respectively.

Driskel's skills as a quarterback caused him to be ranked as the No. 1 quarterback prospect in the nation after his senior season at Oviedo Hagarty High School, and after committing to play for the Gators he recognized his opportunity and decided to leave his high school a semester early to learn Florida's offensive playbook.

He came to me one day before his senior year and said, “Coach, I really think I need to go to school early – but I don't want to let you down,”” Goodwin said of Driskel's decision. “When he came in he was worried about it. I told him that I would be a fan of his whether he was playing baseball or football. When you're a quarterback, that's the supermodel position. And when you're that good, what else are you going to do?

It's a new fad, at Florida especially,” Goodwin continued, speaking to the increasing number of football players that leave high school early. “They probably have six or seven freshman per year that do it on the football side of it. He's young. He didn't turn 18 until after finals of his freshman semester. He's just 19 years old, and he'll be done with his junior year by summer. He'll be a 20-year old senior. It's pretty incredible with the workload between weights and class and football and study hall or whatever.”

A testament of his maturity, the 6-foot-4, 237-pound athlete was thrown into the fire, playing in five games as a true freshman. Not only did he have a crash-course learning the offense, but he also had to deal with incredibly high expectations following a long line of impressive Florida quarterbacks, including Heisman Trophy winners Danny Wuerffel and Tebow.

His background story provides plenty of intrigue. The son of a Naval officer, Driskel was born in Jacksonville but moved to Japan at age 7. In 2003 his family moved back to Florida when his father retired from the Navy, making Oviedo their home.

In the fourth year of the school's varsity football program, Driskel was named the team's starting quarterback as a freshman and threw for 4,844 yards leading his team to its first winning record. During his senior year, as the team's offense morphed from a pro-style attack to a spread formation, he threw for 1,819 yards and 15 touchdowns and ran for another 1,333 yards and 20 touchdowns.

This season, his first full year as the Gators signal caller, Driskel has completed over 64-percent of his passes, and is also his team's second leading rusher. He has led his team to an 11-1 record and their No. 4 ranking. Some of his biggest wins came over big SEC opponents including the LSU Tigers and the Johnny Heisman-led Texas A&M Aggies, as well as another against Florida's hated in-state rivals, Florida State.

In his team's only loss of the year against Georgia, Driskel threw two of the three interceptions he has on the year.

For as good as Driskel is at football, he could have been a star playing the game of baseball. A legitimate five-tool talent, he proved that baseball was still a part of his future plans when he attended the 2010 National Showcase at Tropicana Field, home of the Tampa Bay Rays.

Jeff went to the Perfect Game National and literally hadn't swung a bat except for one time since before spring football started,” Goodwin recalled. “So that's like five weeks. He took one BP before the National and he ended up hitting a couple of home runs in the home run derby, ran a 6.5 (60-yard dash) and threw 94-95 from the outfield. It's just incredible the type of athleticism (he has). He had a long ways to go, as he needed a lot of at-bats before he reached his potential.

He knew he wasn't playing baseball his senior year, but continued to play for me that summer. He just wanted to have fun.”

Goodwin knows baseball talent when he sees it. Not only does he coach for Oviedo Hagerty, but he is also one of the Head Coaches for the prominent FTB (Florida Travel Ball) organization. When comparing Driskel to some of the other talented players that he has coached with FTB, including PG All-Americans and 2012 first-round picks Albert Almora, David Dahl and Jesse Winker, Goodwin was quick to point out the one thing that sets them apart.

Athletically he's more talented than all of them,” Goodwin said. “There's no one that I've ever had that is more athletic. You get a guy like Winker and (Dan) Vogelbach who are two of the most accomplished and professional ready hitters that I've ever had at that point. For guys like Almora and Dahl the game just comes so easy for them.

(Driskel) wasn't as far along in his progress as those other guys, but athletically he's off the charts.”

While Florida Gators quarterback Jeff Driskel doesn't play baseball anymore, he certainly hasn't left it behind.

He actually came back for senior night, and he did the whole ceremony with us,” Goodwin said, speaking to Driskel's character. “That was special to me because that was the first time I had been in a place long enough to see kids from freshmen to seniors. We only had five kids in that (senior) class, but four of them (went on to) play college baseball.

Last summer he came to one of our travel ball tournaments. He came out and asked if he could take BP and jumped right in the cage and had fun being around with the guys. Some of our guys were a little in awe of him knowing who he was and the opportunity that he had this year. To come out on a weekend off to hang out with your travel ball team is pretty neat especially with everything he had going on last summer with him trying to win the starting quarterback job. He's just a good kid that remembers his roots.”

Regardless of what happens in the Sugar Bowl, it appears Driskel is poised for greatness.  Heading into the 2013 season, the Florida Gators will once again be led by a quarterback with legitimate Heisman aspirations and will be considered one of the preseason favorites to claim the National Championship. Despite those lofty expectations, it does cause you to pause and wonder “what if?"

In my opinion he turned down (a lot of money), especially talking to people afterwards,” Goodwin said of Driskel's decision to choose football over baseball. “Just because I coached him in baseball I want to say (his decision) was closer than it probably was.

He's earned everything he has accomplished and I'm really proud of him.”

The NFL's insistence on cutting down on head injuries and concussions is indicative of the violent nature all football players subject themselves to. Baseball also has an advantage when it comes to guaranteed contracts, and because of that the sport has done a good job luring more two-sport athletes to put football, and not baseball, behind them.

Lee, Bradley and Starling as mentioned above chose professional baseball careers despite having attractive commitments to play quarterback for perennial college football powerhouses LSU, Oklahoma and Nebraska respectively.

The Cubs were able to persuade Notre Dame receiving star Jeff Samardzija to focus on baseball full-time, while the Yankees did the same with Michigan quarterback Drew Henson before he returned to football.

Football has had its share of victories as well, claiming Jake Locker, the No. 8 overall pick of the Tennessee Titans in the 2011 draft, and 2009 Heisman runner-up Toby Gerhart, Adrian Peterson's backup for the Minnesota Vikings. Wide receivers Eric Decker (Broncos) and Riley Cooper (Eagles) also chose football despite having considerable baseball promise as speedy, hard-hitting outfielders.

Denver Broncos great John Elway hit .318 in 42 games for the Yankees New York-Penn League affiliate in 1982. Jay Schroeder hit .213 during four seasons in the lower levels of the Toronto Blue Jays system after they took him third overall in the 1979 MLB Draft.

There are also extremely rare cases of two-sport athletes actually playing both sports at the highest level. Bo Jackson is the most notable of such players, who was named an All-Star in both football and baseball before a hip injury ended his NFL career and dramatically shortened his MLB one. Deion Sanders and Brian Jordan are two others, although both eventually focused on one sport (Sanders football, Jordan baseball) recognizing how difficult it was to play both.

Here are several other notable college football players, most of whom will be playing in various bowl games over the next few days, that also had considerable pro potential as baseball players:

Driskel's teammate Raphael Andrades was drafted this past June by the Royals after running a 6.68 60 at the Sunshine East Showcase the weekend before the draft. Andrades is expected to receive more playing time in future years.

Kyle Long, the son of NFL Hall of Fame member Howie, and brother of current St. Louis Rams defensive end Chris, is an offensive lineman for the Oregon Ducks. Long started his college career at Florida State where he surprised people by pursuing a baseball career and not one on the gridiron. Powerfully built at 6-foot-7, 280-pounds coming out of high school (now 6-7/311), Long had impressive power potential as a left-handed hitting first baseman, and an equally powerful arm on the mound as a left-handed pitcher. He peaked at 96 mph at the 2007 National Showcase and was selected to participate in the PG/Aflac All-American Classic that summer. Long left Florida State during his freshman year for personal reasons, and later attended Saddleback College to resume his collegiate career, this time as a football player. He started there as a defensive lineman, like both his father and brother, before making the switch to the other side of the ball in 2011. He has since transferred to Oregon, opening the year as the team's backup left tackle. The Ducks play Kansas State on Jan. 3 in the Fiesta Bowl.

Oregon State defensive back and primary punt returner Jordan Poyer led the team with seven interceptions for the defensive-minded Beavers.  Poyer had one punt return for 20 yards in Oregon State's 31-27 loss to Texas in the Valero Alamo Bowl on Dec. 29.  The Marlins made him their pick in the 42nd round as an outfielder out of high school.

Senquez Golson was considered one of the top overall athletes eligible for the 2011 draft, and was ranked by Perfect Game as the 33rd best prospect in his high school class nationally. Most felt the Boston Red Sox would be able to sign him when they selected him in the eighth round of the 2011 draft, even if it meant they also allowed him to pursue a collegiate football career. That wasn't the case. His game is personified by his game-changing speed, but he also handles the bat well despite his need for refinement, which is expected to come with more experience. As a cornerback for Ole Miss, Golson had one interception in 12 games as a freshman, and has two this season with one more game to play, the BBVA Compass Bowl, where Golson and the Rebels will face Pittsburgh on Jan. 5. He also played 22 games for the baseball team last spring, hitting .204 in 54 at-bats.

Georgia Tech cornerback and return specialist Jamal Golden was ranked the 168th prospect in the high school class of 2011, and attended the 2010 National Showcase where he ran a 6.91 60-yard dash and threw 91 mph from the outfield. He serves as the Yellow Jackets primary kick and punt returner, averaging 29 yards per kick return with two touchdowns and a long of 100 yards this past season. Golden also finished second on the team with two interceptions. Jamal's uncle is former PG/Aflac All-American Reggie Golden, now a member of the Chicago Cubs organization. Golden and his Georgia Tech teammates take on USC in the Sun Bowl today (Dec. 31).

• Facing Golden and the Yellow Jackets will be 
Southern Cal's T.J. McDonald, son of former all-pro safety Tim McDonald.  T.J. may not play baseball anymore, but his athleticism prompted the Blue Jays to take him in the 30th round of the 2009 draft.  The hard hitting safety could be drafted in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft after leading the Trojans in tackles with 99.

Sanders Commings is a three-year starter for the Georgia Bulldogs at cornerback. His three interceptions are tied for the team lead, and he also has 43 tackles as he prepares to take on Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl on Jan. 1. Commings played in two WWBA tournaments with the Homeplate Yankees, and was taken by the Diamondbacks as an outfielder in the 37th round of the 2008 draft.

A midseason suspension last year, injuries and a loaded depth chart full of promising running backs at LSU has made regular carries more difficult for Spencer Ware to come by this season. He has 383 yards after rushing for 707 yards in 2011, and is considered a promising NFL prospect at the position. He played the outfield for the Midland Braves and Cincinnati Playground All-Stars at a handful of WWBA tournament events in high school.  LSU plays Clemson today (Dec. 31) in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.

The Rockies have shown a preference for college quarterbacks for quite some time, leading them to draft all-time great Todd Helton and one of their top prospects, Kyle Parker. They also took Central Michigan's signal caller, Ryan Radcliff, in the 34th round of the 2008 draft. Radcliff has thrown for 3,158 yards and 23 touchdowns this year.  Three of those throwing scores came in a 24-21 victory over Western Kentucky in the Little Casesars Pizza Bowl on Dec. 26, including the go-ahead strike late in the fourth quarter to secure the win.

Another quarterback from the Midwest, Northwestern's Trevor Siemian, also has enjoyed success throwing the football. He has split time at the position, throwing for 1,192 yards and six touchdowns. Siemian played with the Orlando Scorpions in three WWBA tournaments as an infielder/outfielder.  Northwestern will play Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl Jan. 1.

Washington teammates Travis Feeney and Evan Hudson played in the MAACO Las Vegas Bowl on December 22, losing to Boise State, 28-26. Feeney, a converted safety, had two interceptions this year and his 67 tackles were good for third best for the Huskies. Feeney played the outfield in high school, and was selected by the A's in the 48
th round of the 2011 draft.

The hulking 6-foot-5, 262-pound Hudson arrived on campus as a promising right-handed pitcher, and has since developed into a capable backup tight end.

Both Jameis Winston and Anthony Alford participated in the 2011 Perfect Game National Showcase in Fort Myers, Fla., where their two-sport abilities were well known. They both exhibited high level baseball skills as well.

Winston participated in the 2011 Perfect Game All-American Classic presented by Rawlings, and is the only All-American to have a steal of home. Now a member of the Seminoles, Winston slipped to the 15
th round (Rangers) because of his two-sport endeavors, and red-shirted this past year. The Seminoles play Northern Illinois in the Orange Bowl on Jan. 1.

After selecting and signing Alford in the third round of the 2012 draft, the Blue Jays allowed him to pursue a collegiate football career in addition to pro baseball. Alford played in nine games for Southern Miss this season, starting five of them, but was suspended from the team due to an off-field incident and has since left school.

Winston's FSU teammate Tyler Hunter participated at the 2010 National Showcase, where he ran a 6.76 60 and threw 90 mph from the outfield. That led to him being taken in the 48
th round of the 2011 draft by the Orioles. Now a defensive back for the Seminoles, Hunter's three interceptions are tied for the team lead.

Toledo Quarterback Terrance Owens hasn't played baseball since the ninth grade, but that didn't stop the San Diego Padres from selecting Owens in the 40th round of the 2012 draft. Owens is a tremendous athlete at 6-foot-4, 195-pounds, and the Padres obviously felt that those measurables would fit well on the mound. Toledo lost to Utah State on Dec. 15 in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl where he completed 6 of his 17 passes for 30 yards.

In the years to come keep an eye on Missouri quarterback Corbin Berkstresser and South Carolina running back Shon Carson. Berkstresser is built big and strong at 6-foot-3, 230-pounds, and he showed very good power potential and arm strength from the hot corner at the 2009 Junior National Showcase. He made 10 appearances for the Tigers this season, starting four games throwing for 1,059 yards and five touchdowns.

Carson missed the past two seasons for the Gamecocks with knee (2011) and wrist (2012) injuries, but has electric speed as evidenced by the 6.35 60-yard dash he ran at the 2010 National Showcase. He was ranked 54
th in the 2011 high school class.

Aaron Porter should receive more regular playing time for UCLA as a hard-hitting linebacker in the years to come, and could also have an impact on the Bruins baseball team this coming spring after hitting .494 as a high school senior.

While not in the bowl picture, Tyler Shreve is a talented and accomplished two-sport athlete who started his career at Utah. He has since transferred to Riverside CC (Calif.) to play both sports, where he completed over 67-percent of his passes and threw five touchdowns. Coming out of high school in 2010 he was ranked by Perfect Game as the 69th best high school prospect. After being clocked as high as 93 mph at the 2009 National Showcase he was selected to participate in the PG/Aflac All-American Classic that summer.

The Miami Hurricanes have fallen far from the national dominance they enjoyed not too long ago. Two-sport star David Thompson, a quarterback, hopes to be a big part of more successful teams moving forward. Thompson took a red-shirt this year as a freshman, but is expected to pull double duty starting next year while also serving as a power hitting outfielder for the Hurricanes baseball team. He broke Prince Fielder's all-time Florida high school home run record with 44 and was drafted by the Yankees in the 38th round last June.
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