ALLEN PARK, Mich. — Daniel Vogelbach sat in the stands of The Swamp when he watched it all start to fall apart. He had driven to Gainesville so he could watch his best friend, Jeff Driskel, play quarterback at the University of Florida.
Driskel had won the starting job and felt good about where the 2013 season might go. Then, after throwing an interception, he was dragged down — and his right fibula broke.
Season over. Everything else in doubt.
With his season as a minor league baseball player over, this was Vogelbach’s chance to be of assistance. He took Driskel to rehab and sat with him on the couch for hours, watching movies and television, doing what he could to take Driskel’s mind off what had just happened and what it could mean for his future.
“It was a really rough time for him,” Vogelbach said. “That was a year he was really looking forward to and it ended, obviously, really early.”
Driskel’s path to the NFL and starting for the Detroit Lions on Sunday was circuitous. Once a sought-after high school recruit, he came back from his injury and didn’t play as well as before. He was benched before transferring to Louisiana Tech for his final year of college football. It took nearly three seasons for him to start a game in the NFL.
Even when he signed with the Lions on Sept. 17, it was an afterthought — the latest shuffling by general manager Bob Quinn of backup quarterbacks behind starter Matthew Stafford, who hadn’t missed a game since the end of the 2010 season.
There was no reason to believe when Driskel signed he’d ever see a meaningful snap. Stafford had been playing well and is considered one of the toughest quarterbacks in the NFL. It would take a lot for Driskel to see a play, let alone a start.
Then Stafford took a hit in the fourth quarter against Oakland two weeks ago. He finished the game and went through the week of practice as if he would start — until Saturday, when Stafford was ruled out.
Last Sunday morning, despite receiving few reps during the week, Driskel found out he’d be the starter.
“That’s just been my mindset the whole time is, ‘Hey, you could be called on at any time,'” Driskel said. “And be ready to go.”
Driskel, in some ways, has been preparing for his current situation almost his entire career.
It started at Florida, where Driskel was often touted as the next Tim Tebow because they came from the same state, went to the same university and had a similar skill sets as runners and as passers. Driskel never discussed it much, but Tebow’s legacy was evident — a statue was built to honor him in 2011, months after Driskel stepped on campus.
Driskel always tried to remain himself, whether it was frog gigging or airboating in his free time. Florida was tough on him, though he did meet his wife, Tarin, there.
“I learned you have to be able to come back from rough times, because I definitely had them there,” Driskel said. “With not playing so well, getting benched and overcoming injuries … you have to keep moving forward and learning.
“Don’t put your head in the dirt, but learn from your mistakes and don’t be afraid to fail.”
Getting a foothold in the NFL took some time. He was cut by San Francisco in September 2016 and claimed by Cincinnati. He missed almost all of 2017 and then replaced Andy Dalton after Dalton was injured in November 2018. Starting five games, Driskel went 1-4 with 1,003 yards, six touchdowns and two interceptions.
Cincinnati cut him in September. Detroit signed him a week later and less than two months after that, he had to be the guy to replace the guy again — this time filling in for an injured Stafford against the Chicago Bears.
When Vogelbach got the call that his best friend was starting, he tried to figure out if he could get a ticket to Chicago and to the game. With a few hours’ notice, it was impossible — even for a player who became an All-Star for the Seattle Mariners this year. Vogelbach started reaching out to their close group of friends.
Jered Goodwin, Driskel’s high school baseball coach, happened to be close by. A lifelong Packers fan, he was at Green Bay’s Lambeau Field, taking his wife there for the first time. Had he been alone, he might have changed his plans and driven to Soldier Field. Instead, he found himself in Lambeau early, staring at one of the Jumbotrons before the 4:25 Panthers-Packers game kicked off.
“I got to watch that one,” Goodwin said of the Lions-Bears game. “Pretty much the whole fourth quarter on one screen in Lambeau.”
He might have been the only person in Lambeau rooting for the Lions last Sunday, watching Driskel complete 27 of 46 passes for 269 yards, a touchdown and an interception in a 20-13 loss.
Vogelbach said is not easy to watch games with him when Driskel is playing. He gets intense. People know not to talk to Vogelbach because he gets “more nervous and more psyched up than I do to play my own games.”
Vogelbach will be a wreck on Sunday. He’s planning on making the trip to Detroit when the Lions face the Dallas Cowboys (1 p.m. ET, FOX). He understands what his friend went through to reach this point.
“A lot of people never thought Jeff would be taking snaps at quarterback in the NFL,” Vogelbach said. “And it’s just pretty cool how he’s really stuck to himself and put his head down. … We always had people who would doubt us. He always had people he would hear that said he wouldn’t play in the NFL.
“It’s pretty cool. I know how much it means to him.”
Janoris Jenkins expected to join playoff-contending team soon
Although he is not on an NFL roster Sunday, there is every reason to believe that former New York Giants cornerback Janoris Jenkins will be playing as soon as next weekend, and likely for a playoff contender, league sources told ESPN.
The bigger questions are whether Jenkins will clear waivers Monday or Tuesday, and how much money he will make.
If Jenkins clears waivers Monday as an injured player — he has been nursing a minor ankle injury — he would revert to the Giants’ injured reserve list. But the Giants also could waive him off it, which they would be expected to do, meaning Jenkins would go on waivers a second time from Monday to Tuesday.
League sources believe that a playoff contender that has a need at cornerback, such as the Houston Texans or Kansas City Chiefs, could put in a claim or try to sign him after he clears waivers, according to sources. Any team that claims Jenkins would owe him two weeks of salary at $597,000 per week — just under $1.2 million for the remainder of this season, along with a 2020 contract that is scheduled to pay him $11.25 million.
For now, Jenkins doesn’t know whether he will clear waivers Monday, clear waivers Tuesday, be claimed by another team or have his choice of teams to sign with on Tuesday.
But the belief is that despite nursing an ankle sprain, Jenkins could be in a new locker room and back on the field as soon as next weekend.
The Giants waived Jenkins on Friday, two days after he made an inappropriate remark to a fan on Twitter. Jenkins called a critical fan a “retard” when taking exception to questioning about why the stats Jenkins was using to showcase his effectiveness weren’t contributing to victories.
Jenkins said Thursday that the usage of the word was “slang” that is “just part of my culture.” Giants coach Pat Shurmur met with Jenkins on Wednesday and said in a statement Friday that Jenkins’ refusal to admit that what he did was wrong led to his release.
ESPN’s Jordan Raanan contributed to this report.
Sources — Steelers RB James Conner (shoulder) expected back vs. Bills
Pittsburgh Steelers running back James Conner, who has been sidelined by an injury to the AC joint in his right shoulder, is expected to play Sunday night against the visiting Buffalo Bills, sources told ESPN’s Adam Schefter on Saturday.
Listed as questionable on the team’s injury report, Conner hasn’t played since a brief appearance against the Cleveland Browns on Nov. 14.
Conner injured the AC joint during the final two minutes of a win against the Miami Dolphins on Oct. 28. He was wrapping up his best game of the season: 145 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries.
Conner missed the next two games against the Indianapolis Colts and Los Angeles Rams before trying to play against the Browns, but Conner realized after a quarter that his body wasn’t ready. He left the game after just five carries for 10 yards.
“I just wasn’t ready to come back,” he said at the time. “I just tried to fight through it, but I wasn’t able to.”
Conner has missed the past three games, wins against the Cincinnati Bengals, Browns and Arizona Cardinals, with rookie Benny Snell Jr. taking over in Conner’s absence. Snell rushed for 98 yards against the Bengals, 63 yards against the Browns and just 41 yards last Sunday against the Cardinals.
Information from ESPN’s Brooke Pryor was used in this report.
Dolphins WRs DeVante Parker, Albert Wilson clear concussion protocol
Parker suffered a concussion in the second quarter of Sunday’s 22-21 loss to the New York Jets. He did not return after hitting his head on the ground following a difficult catch along the sideline.
Albert Wilson was cleared from the concussion protocol as well, meaning the Dolphins will have their two starting receivers back Sunday.
Parker’s return comes after he agreed to a four-year contract extension on Friday evening that is set to keep him in a Dolphins uniform through 2023. The extension is worth up to $40 million with an $8 million signing bonus and more than $20 million guaranteed, according to a source.
Parker and Wilson practiced throughout the week, donning red noncontact jerseys as limited participants Wednesday and Thursday before being upgraded to working the full session with those restrictions Friday.
The Dolphins’ offense has centered around Parker since Preston Williams went on injured reserve in early November.
Parker has a career-high 882 receiving yards and six touchdowns this season, and maybe most importantly he hasn’t missed a game yet for the first time in his NFL career.
Wilson has 26 catches for 154 yards and one touchdown in a season that has been slowed by multiple injuries.
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