Image Credit: UAA Communications / Courtney Culbreath
As the Florida Gators geared up for a scrimmage on Thursday, their first of the spring, there appeared to be some clear momentum towards one quarterback ultimately being confirmed as the starter.
Redshirt sophomore Luke Del Rio, a walk-on and member of his third college football program in as many seasons, has certainly not been named the starter by head coach Jim McElwain, but all indications are that’s a designation he’s headed towards receiving.
Del Rio began his career as a walk-on at Alabama, choosing the Crimson Tide over scholarship offers at other programs – like one from McElwain at Colorado State, Del Rio’s first such offer – but wound up at Oregon State just one year later when it became clear he wouldn’t be cracking Alabama’s depth chart.
Now on his third team, Del Rio finally feels at home, in large part due to Florida running a similar offense to that of Alabama and him being coached by both McElwain (who recruited him to Alabama and Colorado State) and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier (who coached him with the Tide).
“I didn’t ever think I’d go to Florida when I lived in Jacksonville. We were so close. My dad [former Jaguars, current Oakland Raiders coach Jack Del Rio] went to USC, my sister went to LSU; we were never really Florida fans. It was kind of a journey to get here,” Luke Del Rio explained this week.
“When I decided it was for my best interest to leave Oregon State, I made a couple calls and Coach Nuss said he was going to be here, and I knew Coach Mac because he recruited me at Colorado State and at Alabama. I knew they were going to run this offense, so I felt really comfortable coming here.”
Now Del Rio is suddenly the most experienced – at least in terms of offensive system familiarity – quarterback in a group of four new players who have never taken a snap in the orange and blue. Graduate transfer Austin Appleby (from Purdue) has the most playing experience, while four-star freshman Feleipe Franks is the highest rated prospect of the bunch and three-star freshman Kyle Trask has the strongest arm.
“They’re very very arm-talented; they’re obviously really big guys,” Del Rio said of the first-year players. “Kyle can spin the ball. Feleipe, you can tell why he was so highly rated. He’s mobile, he’s big, he’s got a cannon of an arm. They’re learning, and they’re doing a really good job.”
McElwain planned to give all four quarterbacks first-team reps during the scrimmage to see how each handled running the offense and playing in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
Where Del Rio believes he stands out from the pack is in his ability to change protections and adjust wide receiver routes. (In other words, his general knowledge of the offense.)
That’s where his familiarity with the system comes in to play, particularly considering it is McElwain and Nussmeier coaching him up.
“I love the way that he coaches quarterbacks,” said Del Rio of McElwain. “He knows how to communicate with them. He knows how to coach them, knows when to get on them. I really liked that sort of connection that we made, and we continued it on.”
He continued regarding Nussmeier: “It’s been going great. It’s been kind of a weird transition, but Coach Nuss has done a great job of taking the young guys and taking Austin and I and incorporating us into what he’s trying to do with the offense. We’re working as hard as we can to try and execute the gameplan and getting better every day.”
Despite the coaching connections and experience in the system, Del Rio comes off as humble and just another cog in the wheel. He doesn’t stand out. And while he did not appear shy, he was obviously unaccustomed to the media attention he received when the Gators made him available those in Gainesville, Florida, earlier this week.
“I think it’s an open competition. We’re all competing for the job,” Del Rio said when asked if he felt he would wind up as the starter. “We’re doing everything that we can do to earn the starting job. I’ve been here, but I don’t think that makes me above or No. 1 right now. I have to earn it.”
Considering Del Rio may be replacing a guy who reportedly wanted the starting quarterback job handed to him upon his return from a year-long suspension, that’s likely a refreshing change of attitude from the position for McElwain and Co.