GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Backup quarterback Austin Appleby didn’t veil his thoughts on the hit that knocked Florida starter Luke Del Rio from the game Saturday night and that jeopardizes his status moving forward.
“The hit was very dirty in my mind. I don’t think there’s any place for that, and my heart breaks for not only one of my best friends but a teammate of mine who works his tail off every single day,” Appleby said.
Del Rio took a low hit to his planted left leg while following through on a pass late in the third quarter of No. 23 Florida’s 32-0 win over North Texas. Mean Green defensive end Joshua Wheeler delivered the damaging hit and was slapped with a roughing the passer penalty.
Gators head coach Jim McElwain clearly shared Appleby’s opinion of Wheeler’s hit as he rushed toward midfield to express his frustration with the play and yell across to the North Texas sideline.
McElwain said afterward that Del Rio’s injury situation “doesn’t look great” and that he was getting his leg looked at after the game.
Appleby, a graduate transfer from Purdue in his first season with the Gators, took over at quarterback the rest of the way, completing 2-of-4 passes for 30 yards.
He did help coordinate two scoring drives. On the one in which Del Rio was forced out, the Gators rode their ground attack (including a 5-yard rush from Appleby) and got into the end zone on a 20-yard touchdown by by Mark Thompson.
On the next Gators’ drive, which ended with a 1-yard touchdown run from Jordan Scarlett, Appleby connected on a pair of sideline passes that went for 11 yards (to Brandon Powell) and 19 yards (to Josh Hammond).
And he’ll get the first chance to take the snaps next week and potentially beyond if Del Rio is out, as expected.
“You don’t want to get an opportunity like that,” Appleby said. “You want to come here and get an opportunity to play; you don’t want to see one of your friends get hurt. My heart goes out to him, and I’m confident and I’m prayerful that he’ll be back with us very shortly and we’ll get some good news on him. But when my number’s called, (I’ll) trust my preparation and go play. This team is counting on me. It’s my job to be ready. I prepare like a starter, and hopefully you go out there and the offense doesn’t skip a beat.”
Appleby, who was beaten out for the starting job by Del Rio in the preseason, started 11 games during his time at Purdue while passing for 2,777 yards, 19 touchdowns and 19 interceptions in 17 games overall.
He said back at the start of fall camp that he had opportunities to go to programs that would have offered a better chance to start in his final season, but he said “there was something about” Florida that he “couldn’t pass up.”
When he saw Del Rio go down Saturday night, Appleby said he quickly shifted his thoughts to: “Let’s go. Next man up.”
“That’s our mentality,” he said. “You come to the University of Florida to play. That’s ultimately why I chose to come here. I want to be a part of something special. I don’t think you ever want to be someone’s caddy. You want to be the guy that’s got the ball in their hand, and I’m excited about my opportunity. It breaks my heart that it had to come by an injury, and again I’m really hopeful that he’ll be healthy and back with us as soon as possible, but I’m ready to roll. We’ve got a job to do.”
There hasn’t been an official designation on Del Rio’s status, but McElwain strongly indicated he’s expecting to have Appleby be the guy next week at Tennessee while getting true freshmen quarterbacks Feleipe Franks and Kyle Trask more reps in practice.
Appleby has attempted only five passes this season, but he reiterated that he has been preparing as if he were the starter anyway.
“I go against the best defense in the country every single day in practice so it’s just going to be letting the game come to me, making good decisions and getting the ball to the playmakers. We’ll be all right,” he said.
In the preseason, Florida’s offensive players noted that Appleby was more mobile than Del Rio so it will be interesting to see if the Gators alter their offensive approach. McElwain addressed that Saturday night by saying, “The plan doesn’t change.”
Assuming Appleby is the guy next week, he faces a significant first test as the Gators travel to Knoxville, Tenn., for a pivotal SEC East showdown at Tennessee next Saturday.
The graduate transfer isn’t like most backups, though, in the experience department. He doesn’t expect the environment to faze him if he ends up starting that game.
“There’s no experience like game experience. I’ve played in the big stadiums before. It’s not going to be new to me,” Appleby said. “It’s just going to be another week of practice and get ready to play a game. We’ve got an unbelievable opportunity to go play in prime time in front of a great stadium, in front of a good team and we’ll see where we’re at. We’re excited about it for sure.”