Image Credit: UAA
The long national nightmare of not knowing who would take the first snaps for the Florida Gators in their season opener ended last week when head coach Jim McElwain made the decision everyone expected for months and named redshirt sophomore Luke Del Rio his starter.
Whether Del Rio maintains that job remains to be seen of course, though coupling his play in practice with some recent sterling reviews makes that appear like a strong likelihood barring something unforeseen.
“Luke’s command on everything we’re trying to do has been good. Now, he’s made some mistakes. He knows that this is, by no means, ‘Now I have it and it’s there for good.’ There’s constant competition going on as there is in a lot of the spots. He’s done a heck of a job. I’m excited to roll him out there,” said McElwain in his announcement last week.
Since that decision, McElwain admits that the Gators have settled in to Del Rio and now embrace him as the lone voice in the huddle. That’s obviously a positive, but it still has room for improvement. “The key is our guys settling into that voice and feeling comfortable with his leadership back there,” he explained.
Del Rio dismissed the notion that he was nervous for his first college start, instead claiming to be “excited” for the opportunity on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. against the UMass Minutemen inside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
“I’m just focusing on the game plan the coaches are putting together, and I’m looking forward to executing it,” he said. “I’m really just excited for the opportunity. I’m not really focused on how I’m going to feel or what it’s going to be like. I’m just going to take that as it comes. I’m really looking forward to playing football with my teammates. That’s the biggest thing I’m looking forward to.”
Sophomore wide receiver Brandon Powell is neither surprised Del Rio won the job nor that he appears to be a steady leader despite the fact that he’s preparing for the biggest moment of his playing career on Saturday.
“Since the summer, Luke’s been taking charge, trying to get everybody on the right track,” Powell explained. “His whole mindset this summer was to get better. He was calling up extra work sessions in the summer. This whole camp, he’s been taking charge and everybody’s trying to rally around him to get better for this upcoming season.”
Even Steve Spurrier, back at Florida in a newly created “ambassador and consultant” role, is impressed with Del Rio. He actually named Del Rio the starting quarterback before McElwain got the opportunity and followed up on his praise for Del Rio during a Tuesday appearance on “The Paul Finebaum Show.”
“He has shown he’s maybe the most consistent of the quarterbacks they have there. He’s got a chance to really be a good player,” the Head Ball Coach said.
Despite the Del Rio decision, there’s a lot of moving pieces behind him. Graduate transfer Austin Appleby is locked into the No. 2 position at this juncture, but his career 19-to-19 touchdown-to-interception ratio and 55 percent mark in completions are causes for major concern.
Freshmen Feleipe Franks and Kyle Trask are fighting for the third-string job with the loser presumably taking a redshirt this season, despite McElwain saying he won’t think that way until the fourth week of the season. He also wants to see both youngsters play in the opener. Of course, if the Gators have it their way, no one but Del Rio will play anything but garbage time and both Franks and Trask can save a year of eligibility.
“Both of those guys, it’s something we’re talking about right now. … I’d like to see, to be able to get those guys some reps if possible because obviously we got to have an established third at some point. We’ll kind of see where it goes from there,” he said. “We haven’t made a definitive decision on that, and yet, it’s something we need to look down the road at, no doubt about it.”
In the end, no matter if one or four quarterbacks suit up Saturday, all eyes will be on Del Rio and whether he appears capable of leading Florida not just to victory against one of the worst teams in college football but potentially against some of the best including LSU and, yes, maybe even Tennessee.
McElwain plans to coach Del Rio up throughout the opener, building his new starting quarterbacks confidence by sharing some simple yet true comments as often as he can get in the player’s ear.
“I don’t care who you are, this is your first time being out there and being the leader of the Florida Gators,” McElwain said. “I think the big thing for him, as I constantly will tell him, is first off what color jerseys are we going to be wearing that day, and it would be a pretty good idea to throw it to those color jerseys.
“The second thing is to take what the defense gives you, and eventually, they’ll give you the game.”