GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida quarterback Luke Del Rio said if he had his way he would have been back in action for the game at Tennessee the week after injuring his knee.
He admitted that wasn’t really an option, but he has nonetheless been eager to return since going down in the third quarter of the Gators’ Week 3 win over North Texas.
Now with more than three full weeks to heal and recover, Del Rio should get his chance to retake the reins of No. 18-ranked Florida’s offense this Saturday against Missouri.
For that matter, he confirmed he was ready to play this past weekend against LSU had the game not been indefinitely postponed.
“It was always my goal. To be honest, I wanted to play at Tennessee, but it wasn’t quite ready. I would have been able to play last week,” Del Rio said Monday. “… I did everything I could to try to play every week. Painful, but it wasn’t even about pain. It was about functionality — could the knee handle it — and I was at a point last week to where it could and I would have been ready to go.”
Gators coach Jim McElwain said the same, noting that Del Rio was set to take the first-team reps in practice Thursday before the announcement of the postponement came.
The redshirt-sophomore started the first three games for Florida, completing 61.4 percent of his passes for 762 yards, 6 touchdowns and 2 interceptions.
Fifth-year senior Austin Appleby filled in the last two games, completing 62.7 percent of his passes for 440 yards, 3 touchdowns and 1 interception as the Gators went 1-1 against Tennessee and Vanderbilt.
After a strong start against the Vols, though, the offense has stalled while scoring just two touchdowns over the last six quarters.
“I think the biggest thing is just consistency,” Del Rio said. “We’ve seen that we can play at a really, really high level in both the running game and in the passing game. It starts up front with the offensive line, but we obviously have a big role as quarterbacks; getting us in the right plays, getting us out of bad plays and it’s really just do your job on every play.
“If 10 guys are doing their job it’s probably not going to be a good play. You really do need everybody, and it’s funny because you think, oh, backside wide receiver blocking on a running play, that’s not that big of a deal, but what if it cuts back and then the corner makes a play otherwise it would have been a touchdown. Simple things like that. Everybody doing their job on each play and we’ll be fine.”
Del Rio was meeting with reporters for the first time since before the injury.
Reflecting back on that play when North Texas linebacker Joshua Wheeler plowed into his left planted leg as the quarterback followed through on a pass, Del Rio said he never feared the injury was season-ending
“I felt where it popped and I knew that wasn’t where the ACL was. I knew it was something, but I knew it wasn’t the ACL so I was good,” he said.
While laying on the field in pain and being attended to by trainers after the low hit, Del Rio couldn’t initially see the commotion that ensued as McElwain ran out onto the field and yelled across to the North Texas sideline.
He certainly heard it, though.
“I heard the stadium get kind of loud, but it wasn’t like cheering; it was like yelling, upset. I looked over and he’s about to blow a gasket and five players have to hold him back,” Del Rio said. “It’s awesome to see a coach that will stand up for you like that, you know? That’s who you want to play for. You always talk about, ‘We play for our coach, we play for each other,’ but for him to show that it goes a long way.”
Aside from a broken non-throwing arm his senior year in high school that he played through, Del Rio said he had never experienced a significant injury in his football career.
“It’s tough, but going back to my support system, my family, friends, teammates, coaches, they did a tremendous job at making sure that I was in good spirits and understanding that this isn’t a season-ending thing. It’s just a few weeks,” he said. “And really just attacking rehab and treatment with that same mindset. If you’re constantly down about, ‘Ah, I wish I was playing,’ well, of course you wish you were playing. But be there for your teammates, be there for the guys who are playing so that they can go out and play their best and win.”
Sophomore right guard Tyler Jordan, who missed two games himself with an eye injury, could see how badly Del Rio wanted to get back on the field.
“Luke is a competitor. He’s going try to get back as fast as he can and he’s going to do everything in his power to get back. Every day I’d go up and talk to him and he was rehabbing, icing, getting a stem, doing whatever he could to get back,” Jordan said.
The Gators also brought Appleby to the Monday media session and he said he had not yet been told that Del Rio was starting at quarterback this week. In fairness, he may not have realized that McElwain had already indicated that with reporters and didn’t want to say anything he wasn’t supposed to say. Or, maybe McElwain hasn’t addressed it with the team yet.
For that matter, he didn’t directly say to reporters that Del Rio is starting this week, but McElwain often speaks indirectly about such things and gave every indication that he would play. That’s the expectation.
Moving forward, Florida faces a Missouri defense that gave up 418 rushing yards and 634 total offensive yards to LSU in its last game before having a bye this past weekend.
The Tigers rank 84th nationally in total defense this fall, surrendering an average of 421 yards per game. They’re 70th in pass defense (232.0 yards per game) and 90th in rush defense (189.0 yards per game) — which actually isn’t bad overall considering the woeful showing against LSU.
That said, Florida ranks just 72nd nationally in total offense at 407.2 yards per game.
The Gators will hope Del Rio’s return can help recapture some of the rhythm the offense had in Week 2 against Kentucky, which remains its only thoroughly impressive performance of the season.
“It’s big. You know, he’s definitely helped us out a lot on offense, and he’s a guy that can go out there, get the job done and it’s great to have him back,” junior center Cam Dillard said.
For his part, Del Rio reiterated that he doesn’t think the offense is that far off.
“Yeah, I mean, it’s going back to really just everybody just doing their job,” he said. “It’s a block here, getting off of a press here — it’s very little things. It’s not like we’re letting eight people loose in the backfield every play. Just do your job on every play and stop worrying about what everybody else is doing and do what you have to do and we’ll be fine.”