GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Luke Del Rio has been on the move since his junior year of high school, but he’s finally found a permanent home to play quarterback.
After spending the past four years in four different states, he’s settled in at Florida for 2016 as the favorite to win the starting job.
Del Rio never expected to end up with the Gators when his father, Jack Del Rio, was coaching the Jacksonville Jaguars.
“Didn’t ever think I’d go to Florida when I lived in Jacksonville … we were never really Florida fans,” Luke Del Rio said. “It’s a very unique situation. If anybody told me you’d go to three colleges, I’d probably tell them they were crazy when I was a freshman.”
The transfers started for Del Rio before he got to college. Following his father’s firing in 2011, Jack Del Rio became the Denver Broncos defensive coordinator, and moved his family to Colorado.
Luke Del Rio played his senior season at Valor Christian High School, where he earned his first scholarship offer from Jim McElwain, then the head coach at Colorado State. He first came across the younger Del Rio when he was Alabama’s offensive coordinator.
“Jack brought him to camp when we were in Alabama when he was in eighth grade,” McElwain said. “You could tell some of the things that he kind of just grew up with and had as a quarterback. In fact, we moved him up to the big group because he understood how to take drops, he understood timing, knew how to get the ball out of his hands.
“You could tell at that point he was going to be a really good quarterback. And then obviously when we were out in Colorado, he was there at Valor Christian and just did a heckuva job. He was awfully fun to watch and we did everything we could to recruit him there.”
Despite those efforts, Del Rio chose to attend Alabama as a preferred walk-on instead of accepting McElwain’s scholarship offer.
“He understood it,” Del Rio said. “I’m a competitor. I wanted to play with the best of the best. I played my senior year in Colorado and I enjoyed it, but I was ready for something new.”
Another factor that drew him to Tuscaloosa was Doug Nussmeier, who has known the quarterback since he was 2 years old.
“I think he was knee-high to a grasshopper,” Nussmeier said. “When his father first got into coaching, he actually started working in the strength program when I was playing for the Saints. So in New Orleans, Luke was real, real young. That’s a long time ago.”
When Nussmeier took over for McElwain as Alabama’s offensive coordinator, he convinced Del Rio to join the Crimson Tide. Nussmeier explained why he wanted the Elite 11 finalist on his roster.
“He’s got a lot of football savvy,” Nussmeier said. “The guy’s been around football. He grew up around it. I think he’s got great demeanor, great confidence in his ability and it’s really good in the locker room. The guys believe in his effort and know every day that he goes out, he’s going to give his best.”
But then Nussmeier departed for Michigan, and Del Rio transferred to Oregon State. The Beavers were another team that offered him a scholarship out of high school.
After the 2014 season, Nebraska hired away Mike Riley from Oregon State and, again, Del Rio’s plans were derailed. Fortunately for him, some other coaching changes that offseason made his next college destination an easy decision.
“It was kind of a journey to get here,” Del Rio said. “When I decided it was for my best interest to leave Oregon State, I made a couple calls and coach Nuss said he was going to be here. I knew coach Mac. He recruited me at Colorado State and Alabama. I knew they were going to run this offense, so I felt really comfortable coming here.”
It didn’t take long for that comfort to show up in Florida’s practices. Del Rio quickly began generating buzz during offseason workouts and training camp last year.
Some players even suggested Del Rio would have challenged Will Grier for the starting quarterback job if he didn’t have to sit out 2015 due to NCAA transfer rules.
“He’s a dude I would want to play with,” former Gators tight end Jake McGee said at Florida’s Pro Day. “He’s got a lot of those qualities you would want as your quarterback and as a leader of the football team. I think he’s just a guy that does things the right way. He works hard. He’s somebody that puts the time in.
“He did a good job of going about it quietly while he wasn’t able to be playing. Now that he is cleared and ready to go, he’s done a good job of extending that leadership and making it a little more vocal to really show guys the right way to get it done.”
Once last season got underway, Del Rio was relegated to the scout team. He made an effort to stay behind the scenes, but still made the most of his practice time.
“It was kind of an awkward situation in the sense that all I could do was focus on helping the defense get better,” Del Rio said of his scout team role. “They show you a card and you throw it to a guy, so all I could do was focus on footwork and accuracy and being the best teammate I could. You don’t want a transfer quarterback who’s on the scout team trying to be the outspoken leader when you can’t play that year.”
In what seemed like a subtle shot at Grier, who stopped coming around the UF football program after his mid-season suspension, McGee commended the way Del Rio went about his work when he was ineligible.
“That really shows how much it matters to someone,” McGee said. “It’s easy when you’re out to sort of disappear, take the easy way, the lazy way. But he didn’t do any of that.
“He really tried to get as good as he could get every time last season. I think it will really prove what he did and show the work he has put in this spring, summer and fall.”
McElwain has been looking forward to Del Rio playing since the conclusion of 2015, and he’s viewed him as the front runner throughout practices this month.
“There’s something special about him,” McElwain said. “I just like the way he goes about his business. … There’s a real confidence when the guy takes the field and takes command of the huddle. It’s kind of those little things that you notice.”
Nussmeier said Del Rio’s exposure to their offensive system is an advantage for him in the quarterback competition. Given his history with both coaches, Del Rio couldn’t have found a landing spot better than Florida.
“The longer you’re in a system the more comfortable you are,” Del Rio said. “The timing of the plays, that’s what playing the position and football is all about. You’re comfortable and confident in what you’re doing. I’ve been fortunate enough to have been in this offense for a year or two. I’m getting more and more comfortable every day.”
“It all worked out for me. Like I said, everything must be meant to be. I played with Nuss. I’ve been around Mac a lot. I’m really happy that they’re on the team that I’m on.”