GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Luke Del Rio knew for the last four or five days that, not only was he making his first collegiate start Saturday night, but the first offensive play of the game was going to call for him to throw a deep ball to Antonio Callaway.
And Florida’s new starting quarterback got everything he had into that pass down the seam — too much, actually.
“You’re always excited for the first play. I wasn’t nervous. … I was really juiced up, yeah, absolutely. That’s probably the furthest I’ve ever thrown a football,” Del Rio would say later. “I threw it and I was like, ‘Oh my God, that is way too far.’ I didn’t think I could overthrow him, but I did.”
The No 25-ranked Gators didn’t connect on that potential big strike, and they lacked explosive offensive plays in general in their 24-7 season-opening win over Massachusetts at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
But overall, it was a fairly encouraging performance from Del Rio, who finally got his opportunity to start now in his fourth year of college football and playing at his third school.
He completed 29-of-44 passes for 256 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.
“I thought Luke did a pretty good job. He took care of the ball, he put it where it was supposed to be. I don’t know how many drops we had, but I know there were a couple in the first half that would have really helped,” Florida head coach Jim McElwain said. “… I thought he played OK. He’ll play better. You can see the sense of calm out there the whole time he was there. There wasn’t a lot of panic. That’s crediting a good quarterback, that his team believes in him.”
After starting his collegiate career as a walk-on at Alabama, Del Rio played briefly as a redshirt-freshman at Oregon State in 2014 before transferring to Florida and sitting out last season. He won the starting job this preseason and had talked multiple times about how he felt this opportunity was a long time coming with all the work and patience he had put toward it.
When it finally arrived Saturday night, he said he felt at ease.
“I actually didn’t get nervous. I kind of surprised myself,” he said. “You know, it was an awesome experience playing in The Swamp — (88,121) people. I was looking forward to it for a long time, and I had a good time with my teammates out there.”
His father, Oakland Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio, made the trip to Gainesville for the game, and the two shared a nice embrace during the pregame Gator Walk as the players entered the stadium.
The younger Del Rio also acknowledged that he allowed himself a moment coming out of halftime Saturday night to really put the experience in perspective.
“I kind of looked around and I was like ‘Ah, this is pretty cool.’ Playing for the Gators, I never thought I’d be playing here, but SEC football at its finest,” he said.
While McElwain was complimentary of Del Rio’s debut, it’s clear it wasn’t the offensive showing overall that the Gators wanted — or will need the rest of the season.
They had just 10 points entering the fourth quarter and scored only two touchdowns against a Minutemen team that allowed 48 points or more four times last season and let two opponents score more than 60.
Del Rio felt the Gators were slowed somewhat by UMass’ defensive approach of four and five-man pressures with a zone defense in the secondary.
“They did a really good job of keeping everything in front of them,” he said. “They wanted us to kind of go the long way, and you saw that with the amount of yards that we had, but it took a lot of plays to get those yards.”
He noted that protecting the football was a priority of his while adding that it doesn’t do any good to be an explosive offense that also turns the ball over.
That said, he acknowledged, the Gators need to do more offensively going forward, and he included himself in his critique of the unit.
His longest completion was a 26-yard touchdown to Brandon Powell in the fourth quarter that came on a quick sideline pass that Powell turned into a big play. His best passes came on back-to-back 20-yard strikes earlier in the fourth quarter to Powell and tight end DeAndre Goolsby down the middle of the field to spark a drive that set up an eventual field goal.
“We were having successful plays, just penalties, one missed block here, a drop here, a missed throw here — just little things like that kind of hindered drives individually,” Del Rio said. “But I thought we did a fairly decent job of executing the game plan. … But we need to do a better job at being more consistent and finishing drives.”
As for the 44 passes he attempted Saturday night, that was more than Florida attempted in any game last season.
And it sounds like McElwain and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier are going to give their new quarterback plenty of opportunity to sling the ball around this fall.
Ryan Young is a Florida beat writer for SEC Country and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.