This is bound to get a mixed reaction from 49ers fans: Asked last weekend which current NFL quarterback he compares to or patterns himself after, Jeff Driskel had an unconventional reply.
“I watch a lot of tape on Alex Smith,” the 49ers’ sixth-round pick said. “He’s a guy who can make plays with his legs, does a little bit of zone read out there in Kansas City. The way he can make plays and get down and be smart without taking any unnecessary hits. The way he throws accurately and gives his receivers a chance to run after the catch.”
It’s an interesting answer. Recent quarterback prospects automatically cite Aaron Rodgers or Cam Newton because it’s either what their agents coached them to say or because they think it’s what evaluators want to hear. No one says, “Alex Smith” because Smith never won an MVP award, never led his team to a Super Bowl and isn’t widely considered one of the league’s elite quarterbacks.
But it’s a mature, thoughtful answer. And that’s what the 49ers seem to be getting in Driskel, who along with the rest of the 49ers draft class is attending rookie minicamp this week.
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Both his parents were in the military and lived abroad when he was young. Driskel, for example, was the only American on his Little League team when the family lived in Japan for three years. (Driskel was drafted by the Boston Red Sox with the 863rd overall pick in 2013, despite the fact he hadn’t played baseball since high school.)
He was considered the best high school quarterback in Florida and started as a sophomore in 2012 at the University of Florida. He won 11 games that season and was considered the second coming of Tim Tebow.
He broke his leg early in the 2013 season and sat out the rest of the year. In 2014, he completed only 53 percent of his passes, threw nine touchdown passes and 10 interceptions, was booed by the home crowd and ultimately was benched in favor of a freshman.
With one year of college eligibility remaining, he transferred to Louisiana Tech, where he threw for 4,033 yards – more than his four years at Florida combined – and had 27 touchdowns against eight interceptions. His accuracy also jumped as he completed 62.4 percent of his passes.
Which is to say, his five years in college ran the gamut of highs and lows.
“You know, sometimes that’s the best thing in life – you move on and get into a different place,” Driskel said about leaving Florida. “I just felt that I needed to move forward, rather than staying where I was. I loved the University of Florida, but I thought for my future what was best was to move forward, and that’s what I did.”
Driskel noted that Louisiana Tech’s offense has some similarities to 49ers coach Chip Kelly’s and that throughout the draft process he thought San Francisco would be a good fit. Kelly and general manager Trent Baalke seemed to be most impressed with Driskel’s athletic ability, something he has in common with current 49ers quarterbacks Colin Kaepernick and Blaine Gabbert.
Driskel clocked a 4.56-second 40-yard dash at the combine, faster than any of the other quarterback prospects. The 49ers thought he was even faster than that, with both Kelly and Baalke claiming he ran under 4.5 seconds.
“Heck of an athlete,” Baalke said. “You look at the numbers, he’s a young man that’s over 6-4. He’s 237 pounds. He ran sub-4.5. Just a tremendous athlete that’s played at two high-caliber programs. There’s a lot to work with there.”
Some 49ers fans – those who booed Smith in 2010, in particular – might be concerned that Driskel compares himself to a player who has become the poster boy for “game-manager-style” quarterback and who took a long time to post his first winning season in the NFL.
Well, don’t worry. Smith wasn’t the only quarterback from the 2005 draft whom Driskel cited.
“I also watch a lot of Aaron Rodgers just because his escape-ability in the pocket and the way he can extend plays,” he said.
Notable quarterback 40-yard dash times:
Robert Griffin III: 4.41 seconds
Colin Kaepernick: 4.53
Russell Wilson: 4.55
Jeff Driskel: 4.56
Cam Newton: 4.59
Blaine Gabbert: 4.62
Andrew Luck: 4.67
Alex Smith: 4.71
Carson Wentz: 4.77
Paxton Lynch: 4.86