GAINESVILLE, Fla. — For the first time in 19 years, a former walk-on and transfer quarterback will start for the Florida football team in 2016.
Gator Nation is abuzz about the prospects of newly minted starter Luke Del Rio, but he’s still an inexperienced college player who didn’t come to Florida on scholarship.
He also was a walk-on with Alabama in 2013 and saw limited action the following year in his one season at Oregon State.
That’s somewhat lost in the conversation of Del Rio, the son of Oakland Raiders coach Jack Del Rio. The redshirt sophomore has been hyped up by Florida coaches, players and media since last summer, when ESPN reported he was impressing during offseason workouts and chucking the ball “better than anyone.”
Noah Brindise’s arrival in Gainesville didn’t begin so well.
“The very first day of spring practice in 1994, I introduced myself to Coach (Steve) Spurrier and he didn’t know who the hell I was,” Brindise said. “I look back on it sometimes and say, ‘What the hell were you thinking?’ I essentially just showed up one day at Florida.”
Brindise is the only transfer quarterback in program history to start for the Gators, and he’s also the last former walk-on to do so. His path to Florida’s starting lineup was much different than Del Rio’s.
Brindise didn’t receive any Division-I offers out of high school and accepted an athletic scholarship from Wingate University, a Division-II program in North Carolina. But the Fort Myers, Fla., native didn’t like it there and returned to the Sunshine State after his freshman season.
“I decided to go to the University of Florida and give it a shot as a walk-on,” Brindise said.
He sat behind Heisman Trophy winner Danny Wuerffel from 1994-96. However, Brindise emerged as a potential starting option, and Spurrier awarded him a scholarship prior to the 1996 season.
“After about a year and a half of running scout team and just being a help-out guy, Coach Spurrier realized I was OK,” Brindise said. “I was smart enough and I had learned the offense, so he started giving me reps.
“One unique thing about Coach Spurrier is that he didn’t care about your recruiting stars. I worked hard and all that, but I was also very lucky to play for a head coach who was just different in the way he thought.”
Brindise got his shot under center midway through his redshirt senior season in 1997. In the second half at Auburn, he took over for true freshman quarterback Jesse Palmer and led the Gators to a 24-10 victory.
Brindise split time with sophomore Doug Johnson the next game, a 37-17 loss to Georgia, before starting the final four games of the season. He famously alternated series with Johnson in Florida’s thrilling 32-29 win against No. 1 Florida State.
“I wasn’t the most athletic guy in the world, by far, and I didn’t have a very good arm,” Brindise said. “But I knew where to throw the ball because I had been doing it over and over and over again for several years.
“I listened to Coach Spurrier and I understood the way he thought. Once you get to that point, you can at least be serviceable. Then your natural ability takes over from there.”
At 6-foot-1, Del Rio doesn’t possess the ideal height Florida wants at the position (the other quarterbacks are 6-foot-4 and taller). He also didn’t have the strongest arm in the QB competition.
But like Brindise, Del Rio had the advantage of working in the same system for multiple years. He’s now gone through three training camps under offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, who also is his position coach.
Del Rio has history with Florida coach Jim McElwain as well. He worked with him at an Alabama summer camp as an eighth grader and then received his first scholarship offer from Colorado State when McElwain was the head coach.
Nussmeier is described as a McElwain clone, and Del Rio has been groomed for their system.
“I’m very, very comfortable in this offense. Third year in it,” Del Rio said. “I’ve known Coach Mac for a long time. Known Coach Nuss for a good bit as well. I think the fact that I’ve had this relationship has really helped me.”
Former Florida quarterback Shane Matthews has observed Del Rio in practice dating back to 2015. The three-time All-SEC first-team selection picked up on the chemistry and rapport Del Rio has with McElwain and Nussmeier.
“I think he’s the guy they would have started last year, quite honestly,” Matthews said. “He’s familiar with their philosophies. Last year he ran the scout team and sat in on every meeting and game plan. From a knowledge standpoint, he’s pretty advanced.
“Now, he’s not a guy that’s going to lead the league in passing, at least I don’t think. But he anticipates, knows where to go with the football and throws it accurately. Those things, to me, are more important than size and arm strength.”
Del Rio has reaped the benefits of NFL exposure from his father, whom Brindise has met a few times. But Brindise recognizes there’s more to playing the position than football IQ and practice repetition.
Del Rio has more to prove before he can live up to the hype.
“Really since he’s gotten there, all I’ve heard scuttlebutt is that he’s the best quarterback on the team,” Brindise said. “It’s pretty obvious that he’s going to be smart enough. He understands the game because he’s been around it all his life. Now let’s see what kind of intangibles he brings to the table as far as leadership skills and toughness.”
Those were among the qualities Jack Del Rio said his son possesses when SEC Country spoke to him last spring.
“From my standpoint, the things I look for in a quarterback is a guy who’s smart, tough and accurate,” Jack Del Rio said. “He has those three things and he’s got leadership ability.”
Sure enough, Luke Del Rio said last week his consistent operation of the offense and “natural” leadership won him the job. After being asked to leave Oregon State and walking on at Alabama and Florida, Del Rio said earning a scholarship and becoming the starter this year has been “gratifying.”
“It kind of motivates you,” Del Rio said. “That was always kind of the driving force behind me. I knew that I had the talent. People were kind of starting to say, ‘Does he not see that these coaches don’t want him to play for them?’
“But I always had confidence in myself. Maybe it’s a little bit of stubbornness, but it paid off in the end.”
Brindise’s starting experience was his last dance at Florida. Del Rio still has three years of eligibility and said he joined the Gators to play on the biggest stage.
Brindise knows the feeling.
“He wanted to challenge himself at the highest level,” Brindise said. “That tells me a lot. He’s got my respect, and obviously I’m pulling for him.”
Zach Abolverdi is the Florida beat writer for SEC Country and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.