Luke Del Rio was terrible as the starting quarterback for the Florida Gators in 2016, and that’s not in dispute.
The numbers bear it out, too. His QB rating of 118.6 ranked 105 out of 120 qualified players. He completed less than 57 percent of his passes and threw as many interceptions as touchdowns (8). But you can play terribly without being a terrible quarterback.
A funny thing happened as I was gathering data for an article on a completely different topic. Surprisingly, it became clear that Luke Del Rio should get a real chance to be the starting QB of the Gators in 2017.
Back in March, I wrote about how completion percentage correlates with QB performance, particularly QB rating. That study also showed that the last eight quarterbacks to win the Heisman Trophy averaged a 66.6 completion percentage. The takeaway was clear: Elite passers complete a high percentage of their passes.
But that doesn’t help when evaluating the Gators’ current QB situation because – other than Del Rio – none of them has much of a college track record. Feleipe Franks hasn’t yet thrown a college pass and Malik Zaire only has 98 attempts from his time at Notre Dame. There’s only one place where these players have a statistical record to examine, and that’s at the high school level.
Analysis of high school vs. college performance
But high school statistics aren’t always reliable, right? After all, the level of competition varies widely, and the windows QBs have to throw through are much wider in high school. The answer, as it turns out, is not really.
I examined the completion percentage of 13 QBs in their college career relative to their completion percentage from their senior year in high school. This is admittedly a small sample size and more study should be done, but the results were striking.
As illustrated in the chart below, when it comes to accuracy, high school stats appear to be a really good predictor of college stats.
The average difference between the college and high school completion percentage of these 13 players is 4.3 percent. In only two cases is the difference between high school and college greater than 5 points. The average decreases to 3.0 percent if you remove two outliers. Those outliers? Matthew Stafford (7.8 percent) and Luke Del Rio (14.4 percent).
Stafford had a really weird career. He posted terrible QB ratings (109.0 and 128.9) his first two years at Georgia and had corresponding accuracy issues (52.5 and 55.7 percent). His accuracy improved significantly his junior season (61.4) and his QB rating shot up high enough (153.5) that he became the first pick of the 2009 NFL draft.
Applying these stats to the Gators’ QB situation
I’m not suggesting that Del Rio has Stafford’s kind of ability. What I am suggesting is that the difference between his accuracy in college and accuracy in high school is a sign that he will play much better moving forward. It is called an outlier for a reason.
And as the chart below illustrates, this is critical because the accuracy of the players he is competing with — except one — was not very good in high school.
Zaire is actually a perfect example of someone who has maxed out his ability. He has posted a completion percentage of 59.2 in college compared to 56.6 in high school. The first chart in this article shows that most of the time, completion percentage goes up slightly in college compared to high school. Zaire has already experienced that bump. He’s not going to suddenly become a 65-percent passer.
Redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks actually has a better profile than Zaire. Were he to experience the same bump that Zaire has, his completion percentage in college would be at 61.5. That would place him somewhere around the top 30 in the country, which would be a major upgrade for the Gators offense compared to years prior.
Del Rio obviously has a much better profile when it comes to completion percentage. The stat that worries me is his yards per attempt. This is indicative of someone who dumps off the ball a lot. But that wasn’t Del Rio’s problem last season. His problem was taking too many shots down the field when the pre-snap read indicated he should dump it off.
It is for that very reason — that many of his mistakes were mental and not physical — that I have previously dismissed Del Rio as a viable option for 2017. But perhaps his injuries really did take such a toll that he just wasn’t able to execute. It’s hard to complete 70 percent of your passes against air. And as someone who’s had a knee reconstruction, I know what it’s like when you try to tell yourself to forget about an injury but instinctively shy away from contact when the action starts.
I would be remiss were I to ignore the profile of true freshman Kadarius Toney. Accuracy is the No. 1 reason that I have been shilling for him all summer. Not only does he show accuracy commensurate with Del Rio, but his average per attempt is more than 2.5 yards higher. His ball may look ugly, but he completes them and they are not dump-offs. Add in his electric running ability, and I haven’t changed my mind that he should be the starter.
The Gators’ QB situation moving forward
On a recent edition of the Gators Breakdown podcast, I stated that a sixth year of eligibility for Zaire would be a big deal for the Gators because then he would be more than a one-year stopgap. After looking at these statistics, I couldn’t have been more wrong. The implication of this data is that Zaire is a stopgap, whether he gets a sixth year or not.
That means Gator tweets have rightly focused recently on recruiting as the solution at QB. There has been a lot of debate about whether the recently available 5-star QBs — Justin Fields and Matt Corral — would come to Florida and which one the Gators should prefer. The good news is that if Florida can entice one of them to come to Gainesville, the QB situation should be in good hands. In their junior high school seasons, Corral and Fields completed 64.2 and 66.7 percent of their passes, respectively.
But none of that helps the Gators in ‘17. The schedule is ideal to make a run. But the defense is likely to struggle because of all the talent that went to the NFL. That means that the QB is going to have to step up to offset that drop in production on the defensive side of the ball.
I think that guy is Toney. But maybe you don’t believe that to be the case. Or maybe you don’t believe that you can trust a true freshman against Michigan in the opener.
But if you believe – as I do – that accuracy predicts QB performance, then there are only two choices for the Gators at quarterback in 2017.