GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida quarterback Austin Appleby has never lacked for confidence — not in himself nor his team.
Not in August when Luke Del Rio beat him out for the starting job, and not after the Gators’ second-half collapse Saturday in a 38-28 loss at Tennessee.
“I truly believe that the better team didn’t win on Saturday,” Appleby said Monday. “But you’ve got to take your hats off to Tennessee, they’re a really good football team and they won the game.”
The Vols rattled off 38-straight points to overcome what was once a 21-0 Florida lead late in the second quarter.
Appleby, who made his first start for Florida with Del Rio injured, was a big part of the No. 23 Gators (3-1, 1-1 SEC) building that big early lead, and he finished 23-of-39 passing for 296 yards, 3 touchdowns and 1 interception.
Most of that came in the first half before Florida imploded, in general, after halftime. Appleby was 13-of-23 for 83 yards, 1 TD and that a costly pick over the final two quarters.
Del Rio, who dressed for the game Saturday but did not go through pregame warm-ups, is getting closer to returning from his knee injury. Coach Jim McElwain said Del Rio is “highly doubtful” to play this Saturday at Vanderbilt, but he wasn’t ready to rule him out.
So Appleby likely will get another start, and he doesn’t want to return to the backup role without at least making his case for keeping the job.
“I don’t count my reps; I make my reps count. I don’t control those things,” he said. “What I can control is my preparation this week, my week of practice, the way that I affect my teammates in a positive way. You know, go out there and be the most prepared quarterback in the country and try to help the Gators win a game on Saturday. What happens after that is not in my hand at all.
“But I would like to at least put some pressure on and be the quarterback for this team I think I am. I didn’t come here not to be. But again, that’s a question for Coach Mac and hopefully my play takes care of itself.”
McElwain has given no indication that Del Rio will not immediately reclaim the starting job when he’s ready to go.
He won the starting job in camp due in large part to his command of the offense and knowledge of the playbook after having an extra year in the system while sitting out last fall following his transfer from Oregon State.
McElwain has been very complimentary of Appleby’s play Saturday, reiterating again Monday, “I thought he played pretty darn good — good enough for us to win a ballgame.”
He also noted, though, that the Gators had to burn a couple timeouts in the first half because they couldn’t get ready at the line of scrimmage in time, and that there were two “missed signals” back-to-back on second and third down on the drive after Jalen Tabor’s interception early in the third quarter.
“We shouldn’t have had to use them,” McElwain said of the timeouts. “Now, some of that is simple communication on the field as loud as it was in there — which is awesome, that’s fun — but I think we let that rattle us a little bit. Being aware of where the shot clocks are, I think we lost focus of that a couple times.
“To me, there were a lot of telling things in that game, but after the pick right after half, having two missed signals back-to-back on second and third down, and yet, the third-down call, just block it and we get a first down. That wasn’t earth-shattering. That’s the disappointing things. We never flipped the field at all.”
On that third-and-1 play he referenced early in the third quarter, running back Jordan Scarlett got stuffed and the Gators had to punt as Tennessee soon seized the momentum.
“Going into a place like that, which is obviously a very loud place to play, you’ve got to do a great job of communicating,” Appleby said. “I think we didn’t have any mental errors. Guys were in the right places, there weren’t any really big mess-ups. Early in the game we had to burn a couple timeouts just because one time I think the headset (went) out and we couldn’t get the play in at all, which it happens at a place like that. And then there were some other things, but I think all in all we did a really good job handling the noise. Now we’ve got to do a better job sustaining drives and making those key plays when we need them.”
Asked how confident he felt at the line of scrimmage making adjustments and calling audibles in his first time leading the Gators’ offense as the starting quarterback, Appleby said he felt prepared for all of his pre-snap responsibilities.
“I think all in all, I was prepared. I tell you guys I prepare like a starter whether I am or not. You know, when you’re ready for your opportunity, you go out and just play and have fun. It wasn’t the first time being out there,” he said. “I don’t think I was nervous. I felt like I had poise from the first snap to the last. There were definitely a few things I wished I would have had back. I missed a couple of balls. I think with any film, when you go back and watch you can nitpick yourself, especially after a loss.”
While he has said several times that he came to Florida as a graduate transfer from Purdue because he wanted to play and contribute for the Gators, Appleby emphasized that he and Del Rio have a very good relationship and remain supportive of each other no matter what happens.
“We’ve got a great relationship. He and I support each other as good as any quarterback that I’ve ever been with,” Appleby said. “He’s a great teammate. He wants to win. I’ve said it before and I’m sure he’s said it: It doesn’t matter who’s in there. We want to win and we’re going to support each other because we see the big picture. If there is division in the quarterback room, there is going to be division in the locker room, and there’s not that here. We want to win a championship. So we support each other to the fullest.”