GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Luke Del Rio was done. He didn’t really know what he’d do next, but he was convinced he had played his last college football game.
In more pain than anyone knew, than even the Florida coaches knew for most of the season, his long-awaited opportunity to prove himself as a starting quarterback had been undermined by one significant injury after another until it became too much.
“To be honest, I was pretty set on it. I was so frustrated and kind of worn out physically, emotionally, mentally,” Del Rio admitted Wednesday during Florida’s preseason media day. “I had just graduated — that’s another big thing. I graduated last fall so it was kind of a good point, ‘OK, if you want to do it you can move on now.’ And not move on as a transfer — I’m not transferring — but just stop playing.”
Except, he didn’t want to leave with regrets.
The knee healed, one shoulder surgery and then another took care of the other issues and while watching his teammates go through spring practice he decided he wasn’t as ready to walk away as he had thought.
“I felt myself getting better and I never really officially quit because I wanted to see, is this the injury talking or am I really done?” he said.
So here he is. A year after winning the Gators’ starting quarterback job, he’s trying to do it again with longer odds as redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks moved atop the depth chart in the spring and former Notre Dame quarterback Malik Zaire joined the roster in June as a high-profile graduate transfer.
Where does that leave Del Rio?
“I don’t really care. Like, no offense, I do not care what our fans think about the competition. I care who’s taking the first snap against Michigan,” he said. “I’m going to do everything I can to be that guy, but above everything else I want the best quarterback to play. I want to win.”
Florida coach Jim McElwain, who said all spring Del Rio was still in the picture, reiterated that point Wednesday on the eve of preseason camp.
“It’ll be interesting to see where he’s at off his injuries. I’ve said it, this guy was 5-1, and let’s call it, he should have been a 5-0 quarterback a year ago had I not played him in the Arkansas game, which I shouldn’t have,” McElwain said. “And yet we’ll see where it plays. We’ll see how he is. We’ll see where he’s at physically, but he’s definitely in the plans.”
Del Rio, now a redshirt junior, completed 56.7 percent of his passes last fall for 1,358 yards, 8 touchdowns and 8 interceptions over six starts. He was only healthy for two of those games, though, he said.
After passing for 256 yards and 2 touchdowns against UMass and 320 yards, 4 touchdowns and 1 interception against Kentucky, Del Rio’s injuries started piling up — beyond what was publicly apparent.
A devastating blindside hit from a North Texas defender forced him out of the third game with an injured left knee, but the problems started earlier than that.
On the third or fourth play of that game, he says, he was throwing on the run and had two defenders land on him with his arm still outstretched. The result was an AC joint sprain.
“It was mild and you can play with a mild one. It’s painful to throw, and then the more you throw kind of the worse it gets,” he said. “The coaches didn’t really know it was serious because I didn’t really tell anybody about it because everybody was focused on my knee because they saw a gruesome cheap shot.”
The knee injury forced him to miss the next two games, and the postponement of the Gators game with LSU gave him an extra week to rest before returning Oct. 15 against Missouri. But it wasn’t enough.
Del Rio threw 6 interceptions and only 2 touchdowns over the next three games before being shut down.
Meanwhile, he injured his non-throwing shoulder against Georgia, taking a hard hit while sliding that caused his left shoulder to pop out of socket. The result was a torn labrum, which he felt he could play through, but the right shoulder was only getting worse in the meantime.
It all came to a head in a disastrous performance for Del Rio and the Gators at Arkansas — a 31-10 loss on Nov. 5.
Del Rio finished the game 19 of 37 passing for 229 yards, 0 touchdowns and 2 interceptions, including what seemed like an ill-advised wobbler down the middle. McElwain has said countless times since then that he shouldn’t have played the quarterback that day, that he wouldn’t have if he knew how bad the situation was at the time.
“Going to Arkansas, I couldn’t really throw leading up to that game, but it was like adrenaline, I’ll be fine. I was throwing OK the first half and then it gets hit two or three times right on my (throwing) shoulder and it was shot,” Del Rio said Wednesday. “The pick that looks like I threw it directly (at the defender), that looks like I was shaving points, of course I didn’t want to throw it there. I wasn’t aiming there. As soon as I threw that, I was like, ‘You’re too injured, you’re probably doing more harm than good playing this hurt.’
“But I hadn’t expressed to the coaches how much pain I was in and I should have. … They didn’t really know the extent. It’s not the training staff, them not knowing or caring. It was me working three years to get an opportunity to play, you don’t want to be like, ‘Hey, I’m hurt, don’t play me.’ But lessons learned.”
Del Rio had surgery on his left shoulder Jan. 18 and surgery on his right shoulder, to shave off the top and bottom end of his collarbone as he described it, in mid March. That kept him sidelined for spring practice, but he feels he is back to full strength.
He adds that he wasn’t more transparent about his injuries last fall because, “You don’t know how many opportunities you’re going to get.”
He’s hoping for at least one more, one chance to show the kind of player he believes he can be when healthy. The kind of player he was the first two games of last season.
“I know the offense really well, I think I’m a leader of men, I communicate really well, my arm is back to 100 percent, I know the playbook inside and out, I know what the coaches want to do, I know how to move the ball and I have experience. … I’m confident in what I can do,” he said.
Gators offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier reiterated McElwain’s comments that Del Rio will get a fair look in camp.
“Very happy with where he’s at, and when you go back and look at the body of work when he was healthy, Luke played some really good football for us last season,” Nussmeier said. “So we’re excited. Obviously he’ll be right in the middle of that competition.”
A year ago, Del Rio was the guy all the television cameras and reporters crammed together waiting for at media day.
On Wednesday, he was on the opposite side of the room from the spotlight, as Zaire attracted the most media interest. He obliged all the questions, even retelling his injury timeline at least a couple times for different waves of reporters.
But he doesn’t mind being under the radar this time around, he said.
“It’s kind of nice. I don’t like cameras shoved in my face, so it’s kind of nice to be like a second option,” he said. “I’m pretty private so I don’t really mind what people say as far as, ‘Oh, he’s the forgotten one, or the dark horse or it’s a two-man race.’ I don’t really care. I’m going to do what I can do with the reps that I get and it will work itself out. … I like my chances. I’m confident in my abilities.”