GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Former Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Danny Wuerffel was back in The Swamp on Friday night for Florida’s annual Orange & Blue Debut, as all eyes were focused on who might be the program’s next QB.
But for Wuerffel, returning to the stadium where he led the Gators’ first national championship team means a lot of shaking hands and moving from one conversation to another.
Which is to say that while he was there for the spring game, he didn’t get to see enough of the action to offer a true evaluation of Florida’s young quarterbacks.
“It’s funny, being at the game and with all the former players and all the different folks, I actually didn’t get to see much of it,” he said. “So I had to get some reports from others, but I saw a couple really good throws through there. I think we’ve got some really good, exciting young players at the quarterback position.”
Redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks dominated the first-team reps, completing 8 of 14 passes for 119 yards, 1 touchdown and 0 interceptions. Fellow redshirt freshman Kyle Trask was 6 of 15 for 66 yards, 0 touchdowns and 1 interception while working mostly with the second-teamers against the first-team defense. And true freshman Kadarius Toney took advantage of his opportunities against the third-teamers while rushing 5 times for 74 yards and completing 3 of 5 passes for 24 yards and a touchdown.
But Wuerffel, who won the Heisman Trophy after the Gators’ 1996 national championship season and has his statue outside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, advised Florida fans not to forget about another of the team’s quarterback options.
“I also think it’s real easy for people to move on away from having Luke [Del Rio’s] name in the conversation, but I think he’s a real solid player, smart player,” Wuerffel said. “I think he was hurt a good bit last year, which kind of left some bad impressions for people. But I think if he gets healthy he brings something back to the table too. So it’s going to be an exciting year.”
Del Rio opened the season as Florida’s starting quarterback last fall and made 6 starts while twice being sidelined by significant injuries, first a sprained knee and later a shoulder issue.
He finished with 1,358 passing yards, 8 touchdowns and 8 interceptions, and with the offense mostly slumping for yet another season, most fans are ready to look ahead to what the team’s young quarterbacks might offer.
Gators coach Jim McElwain stated there’s no doubt Franks “is ahead” in the QB race, but the coaches have said before that Del Rio remains in the picture and should be healthy for preseason camp.
Wuerffel says he stopped by for one of Florida’s offseason workouts, but overall he hasn’t seen enough of Franks to offer an assessment of the young quarterback’s potential.
Like everyone who follows the Gators, though, he’s keeping tabs from afar on how the situation develops.
“I love to follow the Gators as a whole, but I always tend to pay attention to what’s going on at the quarterback position and who’s there and [I] kind of know a little bit of the highs and lows and challenges of being in that role,” he said. “So they always have a little space in my heart, and I try to reach out when I can and give a little encouragement over the years.”
Wuerffel was speaking Saturday while taking part in the “All Pro Dad Father & Kids Experience” event in Florida’s indoor practice facility.
While lightheartedly lamenting that his Florida teams never had such a practice complex, Wuerffel talked about the satisfaction he’s derived from his post-football career. He runs his own organization, Desire Street Ministries, which seeks to transform impoverished urban neighborhoods in the Southeast into thriving communities. And when he can, he also lends his time to other related causes.
The event Saturday is one of many put on around the country by national nonprofit organization Family First, offering fathers and their kids a bonding experience through football while rotating through stations on the field, participating in interactive games and discussing the role of fathers in children’s lives. Former NFL head coach Tony Dungy helped found the All Pro Dad program.
“Desire Street’s my full-time job, and it’s that plus some. And from time to time I’ll be able to peel away and do some other events like this,” Wuerffel said. “Of course I get to be a part of different things each year, the Heisman events and other football things. But yeah, my focus is on Desire Street and there’s a lot of overlap [with this]. A lot of what we’re doing is trying to address, one of the issues is a lot of fatherlessness in neighborhoods, and to help develop families and fathers to really develop the next generation of youth regardless of what community they live in.”
As for how he found his way down this career path after retiring from the NFL following his release prior to the 2003 season, Wuerffel said it was “just a whole series of smaller steps that just kept angling me toward the next step.”
It’s not necessarily what he would have envisioned himself doing 20 or 30 years ago, he said, but he likes the role he has settled into and the positive results he sees from his efforts.
“I think a lot of people work really hard and are passionate about what they do. What I feel like the blessing for me is at the end of the day when you work hard, I really feel like it was significant, I feel like it was making a difference in people’s lives,” he said. “Some days you go to bed cheering because there were great things that happened and other days you go to bed crying because there’s different tragedies that happen. It can be like a grind sometimes, but it’s definitely rewarding.”
As for his football legacy, Wuerffel always enjoys returning to the stage of so many of his highlights.
He said getting back to The Swamp on Friday night was like he “stepped into an alternate reality.”
“It’s just a beautiful field, it’s an unbelievable stadium and even though it wasn’t full it still felt electric for the spring game,” he said.