GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Feleipe Franks pulled out a marker at halftime and wrote fellow Florida quarterback Luke Del Rio’s first name on the underside of his left wrist as a reminder.
Del Rio, who had replaced Franks as the Gators’ quarterback in the second half last week, left the game Saturday against Vanderbilt after being driven into the turf late in the second quarter.
It was clear something was wrong when he remained on the ground in pain before walking slowly off the field favoring his left non-throwing shoulder and not returning out of the tunnel with his teammates in the second half.
After Florida closed out its 38-24 win, coach Jim McElwain confirmed the worst-case scenario.
“Luke will be done. He’ll have surgery on Monday,” McElwain said.
He later clarified the surgery will be to repair Del Rio’s collarbone. It’s the cruelest plot twist yet in Del Rio’s persistent pursuit to be a starting quarterback at the collegiate level.
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He transferred from Alabama to Oregon State to Florida, sitting out his first year in Gainesville, just to get the chance to compete for the job last season. By the third game of 2016, he had incurred an AC joint sprain in his throwing shoulder and a significant injury to his left knee. After missing the next two games, he returned against Georgia and tore the labrum in his non-throwing shoulder.
Del Rio played through those injuries until the pain and his performance dictated he shut it down for the season. He admitted he wasn’t sure he wanted to play football again, but after surgeries to both shoulders, he started feeling better and found the drive to make one more shot at it.
Viewed by most as the underdog in Florida’s three-way quarterback competition at the start of preseason camp, he had vaulted himself back to the top of the depth chart after leading the Gators to a fourth-quarter comeback at Kentucky last Saturday.
And then this.
It was third-and-long late in the second quarter and the play had broken down. Del Rio backed up behind the line of scrimmage to buy time and found Brandon Powell for an 11-yard completion, releasing the ball just before Vanderbilt defensive lineman Dare Odeyingbo drove him into the ground.
Now Del Rio’s season is done and it’s unclear if his career at Florida is, as well. The redshirt junior will face the same mental hurdle if he wants to rehab and return, and the quarterback depth chart will be more crowded if or when he does.
“I feel real bad. It’s tough, coming back from what he came through and finally getting a chance and then right back to the same position. It’s tough,” wide receiver Freddie Swain said.
Said McElwain: “It’s hard. It’s hard. I think he was the one that told you he’s never been through a season on a team that only used one quarterback. So that’s exactly right. He was actually a little bit of a prophet right there, but you know, I do feel horrible for him.”
So did Franks, who got his job back Saturday but not in the way he would have wanted. He said he played the second half for his injured teammate.
“I just wrote his name on my wrist just to keep him in my prayers because it’s hard when that stuff happens, when you get hurt like that. I can only imagine what he’s going through, him and his family, man,” Franks said. “It’s emotional and [I] definitely wanted to keep him in my prayers. Especially when I was out there on the field.”
Just as Del Rio had done in place of Franks last week, the redshirt freshman gave the Gators what they needed off the bench Saturday.
Soon after entering the game, Franks threw a 49-yard pass to Tyrie Cleveland in the final minute of the second quarter that set up a game-tying field goal. Franks finished 10 for 14 for 185 yards as Florida scored three second-half touchdowns.
“Feleipe came in, took care of business. I thought he handled it well,” McElwain said. “We’ll get him and Malik [Zaire] ready to roll, obviously expanding the package with Kadarius [Toney] bit by bit back there as well. That’ll be something that we’ll continue as we look and just see how he handles it.”
Zaire, the graduate transfer from Notre Dame, hasn’t played since relieving Franks in the season opener against Michigan, while Toney, a freshman converting from quarterback to receiver, has been used in the wildcat.
Franks, meanwhile, will get every opportunity to cement himself as Florida’s quarterback of the present and future.
It’s a second chance after his initial three-game audition didn’t go as hoped, but on Saturday afternoon he was mostly thinking about what this all means for Del Rio.
“You want to play for somebody and that was one of the [people] I wanted to play for because he’s done nothing but support me and help me the whole time I’ve been here at Florida,” Franks said. “Man, it hurts. I know it hurts him and it also hurts me.”