AUBURN — The first major difference Jack Driscoll noticed was the heat.
He’s from Madison, Conn., a town of a little less than 20,000 situated right on the Long Island Sound. He spent the first three years of his collegiate career in Amherst, Mass., which sits about 100 miles west of Boston. Up there, Driscoll joked, if the temperature hit above 90, they would cancel practice.
In Alabama, temperatures reaching triple digits on the practice fields is par for the course.
That’s not the only difference Driscoll has noticed. There’s the food, too. A lot more of it is fried, which he’s certainly not complaining about. He discovered he likes catfish, which is a meal that’s hard to find in New England.
The people are different, too. Friendlier. Where Driscoll is from, about a two-hour drive from New York City, people tend to walk with their head straight down, getting from Point A to Point B as fast as possible.
“Here, people will stop you and strike up a conversation if you’re even wearing an Auburn shirt,” Driscoll said. “The hospitality has been awesome.”
Driscoll’s introduction to Auburn football has been, too. He committed to the Tigers as a graduate transfer from UMass in April, and less than four months later, all signs point to him leading the competition with redshirt freshman Austin Troxell to be the starting right tackle Sept. 1 against Washington in Atlanta.
After all, he is the most experienced offensive lineman on Auburn’s roster. Left tackle Prince Tega Wanogho, left guard Marquel Harrell and right guard Mike Horton have 20 starts between them. Driscoll has started 20 games by himself over the past two seasons.
And before you say “well, those games were at UMass,” consider this: Of those 20 starts for the Minutemen, five came in games against SEC opponents and another came against an ACC foe. Phil Steele named him to his All-Independent First Team. Pro Football Focus gave him a grade of 85.1 for the 2017 season, which was the second-highest for an offensive tackle outside the Power 5 conferences.
“I think that was kind of something that gave me confidence coming in, was that my first start as a redshirt freshman was in The Swamp. So that’s kind of something that I understand, that everyone puts their pants on one leg at a time,” Driscoll said. “I wasn’t going into it blind-eye, just playing some lower-level teams. Even outside of the teams we played in the SEC, we played Boston College, which had a couple of draft picks on that defense, and that really helped me out and gave me confidence that, hey, I can play at a place like Auburn.”
J.B. Grimes’s father used to say, “a blind hog will find an acorn every once and a while.”
In this case, Auburn is the blind hog, Driscoll is the acorn the veteran offensive line coach is glad the Tigers found it.
“He belongs here, and for us to be able to get that kid with the kind of work ethic that he has, the kind of professional attitude he has, the kind of intelligence that he has — on top of an excellent football IQ — is amazing,” Grimes said. “We’re really, in my opinion, fortunate to have that young man on our football team right now.”
Three years ago, there were very few coaches even looking at Driscoll. He was a two-star recruit ranked 223rd at his position and 2,277th overall in the Class of 2015. His only offers coming out of Daniel Hand High were UMass and Army. At 6-foot-4 and 250 pounds, he looked more like a tight end than a tackle. He played both as a senior.
“Jack probably was the most underestimated player that I ever coached on high school,” said former Hand coach Steve Filippone, who retired following the 2016 season. “He didn’t get a ton of accolades at the end of the season or anything like that. He was just a steady, positive, hard-working kid who kind of wore his hard hat and brought his lunch pail to practice every day.”
The reason Driscoll didn’t receive much interest then was simply that he hadn’t matured physically. Filippone described him long and lean — “you knew you could put a lot of weight on him, but I think it was difficult to project how much weight you could put on him, how strong he could be, how big he could get.”
Driscoll grew an inch after starting college. By the time he finished up three years at UMass, he had put on more than 40 pounds. Auburn lists him at 6-foot-5 and 300 pounds.
“It’s not only what God gave you; it’s what you do with it, and Jack has gone way above and beyond in maximizing his potential,” Filippone said. “He was always a very smart kid and very astute about the game, but he pushed himself physically to take that frame that he always had and build it into a 300-pound-plus, strong, quick, athletic person that he is today. All the credit goes to Jack, in terms of his work ethic and commitment to be the best he can be.”
When Driscoll decided to leave UMass as a graduate transfer — the biggest reason being that he wanted to pursue his MBA — Filippone said suddenly had more friends than anybody in the United States. Coaches from Baylor, Michigan, Boston College, Duke and Auburn, among others, called him trying to find out what he knew about which way the highly sought-after tackle was leaning.
Driscoll chose Auburn over other finalists Southern Cal and UCLA. He redshirted his first year at UMass, so he still has two years of eligibility remaining. And while the Plains are much farther from home than Amherst, it won’t be too difficult a trip for parents John and Cory Driscoll to make — Jack’s younger brother, Flynn, also plans to attend Auburn.
“Auburn really felt like home,” Driscoll said. “I came down here and really loved it. I loved Coach (Gus) Malzahn. I really thought I hit it off with Coach (Ryan) Russell. Just the kids, I had an opportunity to spend some time with a bunch of kids on the team, and it was a group of guys that I think that I could see myself surrounded by and that could make me a successful player.”
Driscoll wasn’t guaranteed anything when he arrived at Auburn over the summer, even if it was as a graduate transfer. Wanogho was entrenched as the team’s left tackle, and Troxell and fellow redshirt freshman Calvin Ashley were locked in what Grimes had called a “dead heat” to be the team’s starter at right tackle.
But it didn’t take long for the “kid from UMass” to push his way to the top of the depth chart. Ashley, a former five-star recruit, moved to guard at the start of fall camp and will more than likely serve as Horton’s backup at that spot to open the season. Troxell got the bulk of the first-team reps at the start of camp, but it seems Driscoll’s experience has won out, even if Malzahn hasn’t made any official declarations about who will start against the Huskies.
“I think Jack really just came in and attacked everything. He never had any drop off or period where he had to adjust. It seems like he’s just always here. That’s how we all felt,” Horton said.
And if there were any doubts about Driscoll’s ability to hold up against SEC-level competition — even after games against Florida, Mississippi State, South Carolina and — two-plus weeks of practices against the likes of Marlon Davidson, Derrick Brown and Nick Coe have surely erased them.
“It’s one of those things that’s obviously a challenge, but it gets you a lot better,” Driscoll said. “I can already tell that I’m already a better player, and I hope I’m making them better players as well. It’s fun. As a competitor, that’s the kind of stuff you like, is getting to play the best every day and seeing how good you really are.”
The weather might be warmer, the food might be fried more often and the people are certainly nicer, but Driscoll’s performance on the football field doesn’t seem to have changed at all.
“He wasn’t really a gamble for Auburn or anybody else. They knew what they were getting. He hasn’t disappointed,” Filippone said. “He kind of flew under the radar, but he’s not flying under the radar anymore.”