GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida quarterback Luke Del Rio didn’t get the opportunity to break away Sunday and watch his dad’s Oakland Raiders defeat the Jaguars in Jacksonville.
The Gators practiced as part of their bye-week schedule and that was set a while back, coach Jim McElwain said.
But Del Rio’s dad will get to watch him this Saturday on that same turf at EverBank Field as No. 14 Florida meets Georgia in the teams’ annual neutral-site rivalry showdown.
“Yeah, you know, I wanted to see the game. It would have been cool to be back in that stadium, but I get to be back there on Saturday. I’m really excited for it. I’ve never actually been inside for a Florida-Georgia game,” Del Rio said Monday. “I’ve seen it pretty much every year, grew up going to some of the tailgates with my family and it will be really exciting to get to participate in such a historic event.”
Especially if he can follow suit after his father, Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio, picked up a 33-16 win against the Jaguars franchise he coached from 2003-11.
With the surging 5-2 Raiders set to play in Tampa this Sunday against the Buccaneers, the team is remaining in Florida for the week and the elder Del Rio will get to watch his son play in the biggest game of his collegiate career to this point.
“Hopefully the Del Rio family can go 2-0 back-to-back weeks,” the quarterback said. “I know it’s hard to go West Coast to East Coast. They’ve done a great job of that. Hopefully, we can go an hour and a half west to east, but yeah, it’s kind of interesting the way it works out.”
Del Rio’s background and collegiate story have been told time and again, but it really is quite interesting to consider this week.
He used to pal around with the Jaguars’ players in that stadium, play catch with his dad there and run out on the field to pick up the tee after kickoffs.
He retold the story Monday of the time that then-Jaguars kicker Josh Scobee skipped a football off the turf and hit him in the face, accidentally giving him a black eye. About 8 years old at the time, Del Rio covered for the kicker while giving his dad some other excuse for the injury.
And it was during his time there, growing up around the game in Jacksonville, when he would eventually start dreaming of playing at the collegiate level and launch his own football career.
There’s no way that Del Rio would know that after stops at Alabama and Oregon State he’d wind up as the starting quarterback at Florida, set to lead the Gators onto that familiar field in one of the biggest rivalry traditions in college football.
“Lot of really good memories,” Del Rio said. “The stadium is so different now. They improved it in every way — the screens, the stands, the club level. Everything, they’ve kind of enhanced. But growing up there for eight and a half, nine years, being able to play with my dad and then watch his teams compete on that field is really special. We still have a game to win, but it will be fun to be back there.”
There is that matter of business, yes.
Del Rio is coming off his worst performance of the season after completing 18-of-38 passes for 236 yards, 1 touchdown and 3 interceptions against Missouri two weekends ago. The offense eventually found a rhythm and piled up 523 yards and the Gators won 40-14 with the help of a couple of defensive touchdowns, but all eyes will be on Del Rio this week as fans and the coaches watch to see if the offense can take a step forward.
And if Del Rio can shake off that poor performance and rise to the challenge Saturday.
He didn’t get to play in the Gators’ clash at Tennessee last month. That was one of two he missed with a sprained knee, so this will be by far the biggest game in which he’s played for Florida.
Speaking during his weekly Monday media session, Del Rio dismissed any notion that an extra couple weeks to further strengthen his knee would impact his play at all. The knee wasn’t the issue against Missouri, he said.
He’s rewatched that game multiple times and says he knows what went wrong and how to fix it.
“You watch it, you know, two or three times and you kind of bury it. Like I said, the first thing that I wanted to do was just practice, just kind of get it out of my system, get my feet right. That’s really what it came down to is bad feet — bad feet the whole game — but all of it is correctable and we’re making those corrections and moving forward,” he said.
Said McElwain: “I think the biggest thing there was simply his footwork and he actually drifted himself into trouble a little bit as he was bouncing off his drops. You’ll see that he created some of that, and it wasn’t really pressure, but in the pocket in drifting he actually drifted into some trouble, which didn’t allow him to be as accurate as he normally is throwing the ball.”
It’s important to note that while Del Rio is a fourth-year sophomore at his third school, he has still only made four career starts at the collegiate level.
Overall, he’s completed 57.6 percent of his passes for 998 yards, 7 touchdowns and 5 interceptions in four games.
“I’m learning a lot, every game, good or bad,” he said. “Just having fun out there. I kind of had to remind myself in that Missouri game. It’s not fun to throw picks, but it is fun to play with your teammates and win. So, I’m enjoying every bit of it. I kind of have to pinch myself sometimes because I remember in high school, I would just pray and beg, ‘Just let me play football at some level in college.’ And I’m the starting quarterback for the Florida Gators, so tremendous, tremendously blessed and thankful that I’m in this opportunity and this situation and just kind of taking it day by day.”
Saturday will be an especially big one for him, though — in a number of ways.