GAINESVILLE, Fla. — After the first day of preseason practices Thursday, Florida coach Jim McElwain was naturally asked about his two competing quarterbacks.
He was also reminded, as sort of a preface to what will be a steady stream of quarterback questions all month, that everybody is very interested in that camp battle in particular.
“I’m interested in it too, though. Don’t think I’m not. I truly am,” McElwain joked in response.
The Gators weren’t in full pads for their split-squad sessions Thursday — with the veteran players working first in the indoor facility, followed by the younger players — so there was only so much to be gleaned. It was still enough, however, for McElwain to notice some positives among the quarterbacks and the progress made by redshirt sophomore Luke Del Rio and graduate transfer Austin Appleby.
“Both guys took a bunch of reps with both units today. You know, let’s face it, we were in underwear and helmets. It’s different,” McElwain said. “So what were we trying to get out of that position today? I would say more than anything is a command of what we’re trying to accomplish to get the other people lined up and to see if mentally they were able to handle some of the changes at the line of scrimmage, within a play call — that type of thing.
“I’ll tell you this, I was really happy with both of their commands, especially in two-minute today. I mean, to be able to (in) practice one go two-minute at the end of the game (needing) a field goal, I thought both offenses did a good job.
“Now that younger session, the two-minute was not a thing of beauty, there might have been a few sacks, but that’s OK. The fact we were able to actually engineer that drill shows me that we’re way ahead.”
That younger group featured true freshmen Kyle Trask and Feleipe Franks.
As for the contenders for the open starting job, Del Rio came out of the spring with an edge in the competition, but he has thrown just 18 career passes while bouncing from Alabama (as a walk-on) to Oregon State and finally to Florida, where he sat out last season due to NCAA transfer rules.
Appleby, meanwhile, made 11 starts and played in 17 games over three seasons at Purdue, where he passed for 2,777 career yards, 19 touchdowns and 19 interceptions.
While there wasn’t all that much for the coaching staff to take away on day one, it was still more than they’ve been able to do with the quarterbacks since the spring game.
They can’t coach the players between the spring and the start of fall camp, so there is plenty left to learn in the coming weeks.
“Those guys have got to go do that on their own (in the offseason). And then (when you’re in the office) and the guys come up for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and you can ask, ‘Did anyone catch a ball today?’ And they say, ‘Yeah, these guys throw pretty good,'” McElwain said playfully, explaining his limited opportunities to track the players’ maturation leading up to camp.
“I would say this, in all four guys’ cases, you can tell that they really took the weight room to heart — you’re talking about good weight they put on. The drops under center seem to be, footwork-wise, seem to be pretty good.”
The most encouraging comment he made Thursday might have been that he sees that position group ahead of where the quarterbacks were at this time last summer.
Of course, the Gators should be ahead of their 2015 pace from the basic standpoint that this is the second year for this coaching staff and they’ve had more time to establish their system and expectations.
While Appleby only had the spring to get acclimated to his new team, he’s an experienced quarterback with plenty of urgency to assimilate quickly if he is going to earn playing time this season. And Del Rio has had a full year with the program.
But if there was something for the coaches to be truly encouraged by on day one, as it relates to the quarterbacks, it was seeing things come a little easier than maybe they did a year ago.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt about it,” McElwain said. “And I say that only because, let’s face it, they only had a spring. So it was 15 practices a year ago and then we’re jumping into fall camp. You can say these guys [are] kind of the same way, but you have a whole group of people now who have been through the routine of the how and been through the routine of the why and it just helps, I think, in the transition phase to be ahead naturally.”