GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida coach Jim McElwain has had to remind himself at times that as a starting quarterback, Luke Del Rio is still a rookie.
Sure, a well-traveled rookie heading into his fourth year of college football with his third school, but a rookie nonetheless.
On Saturday night in The Swamp, Del Rio finally will get the opportunity for which he’s worked and waited these past few years. The fourth-year sophomore takes the reins and carries the weight of a fan base’s collective optimism on his right arm as the Gators open the season against Massachusetts, hoping to unveil a more dynamic offense than the one that floundered down the stretch last fall.
As McElwain acknowledged this week, though, until Del Rio proves himself in live action, in front of a full Ben Hill Griffin Stadium crowd, nobody truly knows how he’ll take to the job.
In the meantime, there can be only confidence and optimism — and there’s no shortage of either.
“Something Nuss (offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier) and I talk about quite a bit is we kind of forget that this is his first go-round,” McElwain said. “It’s almost like we expect him to do things a little bit like a veteran in how he approaches it and the decisions he makes, and yet we’ve got to be conscious of the fact that, I don’t care who you are, this is the first time being out there and being the leader of the Florida Gators.”
This test should be about as conducive to success as any.
Del Rio and the Gators open against a Massachusetts program that is just 8-40 since jumping to the FBS in 2012. The Minutemen ranked tied for 96th nationally in pass defense last season, giving up 254.9 yards per game through the air. They tied for 116th in sacks with just 15. And they’ll be rolling out two new starters at cornerback against what projects to be a dynamic set of starting receivers for Florida in sophomore Antonio Callaway and speedy juniors Brandon Powell and Dre Massey.
Still, all eyes will be on the Gators’ new quarterback this week. He is the story line of Week 1 as fans and those inside the program look for indications that they’ve found the answer to a position that has mostly vexed Florida since Tim Tebow finished his time in Gainesville.
Seven quarterbacks have started games for the Gators since then, and the last six ultimately transferred out of the program.
After doing plenty of moving around himself, Del Rio seems to be in a spot almost predestined as both McElwain, at Colorado State, and Nussmeier, then at Alabama, recruited him out of high school.
They wanted him then, they wanted him again here and now everybody will get to see exactly what he can do.
“The guy was a winner and he’s really a gym rat. And when you look at his completions and touchdowns to turnovers, he was very efficient, which tells me he’s really a good decision-maker,” McElwain said. “Now how’s that going to be the first time that he steps foot in The Swamp in front of 90,000-plus? I don’t know. We’ll find out. But I don’t think that the arena is going to be too big for him.”
A determined prospect
Rod Sherman agrees wholeheartedly with that assessment.
Sherman, now the head coach at Valor Christian High School in Highlands Ranch, Colo., was the offensive coordinator during Del Rio’s one season as the school’s starting quarterback.
As a senior, Del Rio passed for 2,275 yards, 28 touchdowns and four interceptions while leading Valor Christian to the Colorado 5A state championship.
There is a lot Sherman remembers from working with him that year, but one story jumps out above the rest.
It was the second game of the season. Valor Christian was playing a strong Bingham High School team on the road in Utah and would eventually lose the game in overtime to fall to 0-2, but not without its quarterback making a strong statement in the process.
“In the second quarter, he actually broke his non-throwing thumb and not only did he finish the game, he didn’t say a word about it,” Sherman recalled. “And on Monday morning he’s got a cast on. Then the next five weeks, six weeks, he had to play with a cast on. We adapted our offense to doing everything out of the shotgun, but there were a few plays where we were in short yardage and didn’t want to go in the gun, so the backup went in and Luke was great with that. … I credit a lot of (the team’s success from that point forward) with how he handled that adversity.”
Del Rio is the son of Oakland Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio, who at the time was the defensive coordinator of the Denver Broncos.
As such, his name carried some weight and expectations even as he first arrived at Valor Christian, and yet the younger Del Rio was intent to prove himself then, as he is now.
Valor Christian has produced a wealth of college football players in the Power 5 conferences, including a top Heisman Trophy candidate in Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey, a teammate of Del Rio’s during that 2012 season.
Still, Sherman said, Del Rio stood out in his own right. For his competitiveness, for his physical abilities and for his cerebral approach to the game.
“Man, the young man can sling the football. He can throw it so well,” Sherman said. “We’ve been blessed to have multiple Division I QBs and, oh man, can he throw the football. He (also) had such a high football IQ, but I never found that he rested on his laurels. We watched a ton of film together. He knew what the other team was going to do and he never found an adjustment he couldn’t make. He’s just so smart. …
“He knew the (entire) structure of the defense. Some QBs just look at it and look at the corner. He knew safety levels, corner depth, linebacker depth. And we’d look at it that this might be a time, based upon those tells, (of here’s) what’s coming next. Some guys are good on that in the classroom, but he transitioned all of that to the game. When the game came he found those tells just as he did on film.”
Del Rio was a well-regarded prospect coming out of high school, ranked as a 3-star recruit and the No. 4 player overall in Colorado, according to the 247sports composite.
McElwain, then coaching just up the road at Colorado State, pursued him aggressively.
“They loved him,” Sherman said. “(But) I think realistically at the end of the day there was excitement for Luke to play in a Power 5 conference.”
Del Rio hadn’t grown up in Colorado, spending much of his childhood in Florida — his dad was the longtime head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars — so the appeal of an in-state school was not what it might be for others in his position.
And Nussmeier, then the offensive coordinator at Alabama, also was after him as a preferred walk-on. Del Rio said it was a dream of his to play for a program like that and a coach like Nick Saban and so that’s where his college career started.
He doesn’t discuss in-depth the reasons that led him to transfer to Oregon State after his first season at Alabama, but he was happy with the move and thought he had a future there until a coaching change dealt him another detour.
So it was on to Florida, where both McElwain and Nussmeier were eager to have another chance at him.
Del Rio has joked that over these past few years he’s gotten his share of comments from friends and others surprised he has stuck with his dream through all the twists and turns, but he never lost his drive or belief in himself.
Even during what he called the “lonely days” in between transfers when he wasn’t actually in school or working with a team.
“Really the thing that kept popping into my head was ‘You’ve come so far, why would you give up now?'” he said earlier this month after being named the starter. “It kind of motivates you. It’s kind of a mean thing to say, but it kind of motivates you when when you see other guys quit, other guys stop. Maybe it gets too hard or they get discouraged. The fact that you keep going, I thought that that was always kind of the driving force behind me. And I knew that I had the talent. It was starting to kind of, people were kind of starting to say, you know, ‘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.”
Sherman, who sent Del Rio a text message after he was named the starter, has a different take on that “stubbornness.”
“For me, what I always get from Luke is he’s such an optimist,” he said. “And he has confidence. I don’t think he could be where he’s at without having a firm belief in himself.”
Just as important now for the Gators is the confidence Del Rio’s Florida teammates and coaches have in him.
There is a lot being asked of a guy who has attempted only 18 passes in his collegiate career.
“There seems to be a real kind of settling in there as far as that voice in the huddle, which is a good thing,” McElwain said. “I think as time goes that’s one of those deals that you’ve got to continue to move forward with that leadership and that voice.”
Said Powell, the Gators’ junior wide receiver: “Since the summer, Luke’s been taking charge, trying to get everybody on the right track. We ended off bad last year, so his whole mindset this summer was to get better. He was calling out extra work sessions in the summer. This whole camp, he’s just been taking charge and everybody has been rallying around him trying to get better and get ready for the season.”
Florida running backs coach Tim Skipper, having observed Del Rio throughout camp, sees in him many of the same things Sherman did in high school.
“I think his No. 1 thing is he knows where to get the ball to. He’s very smart, very smart,” Skipper said. “He can read the defenses, he knows where he’s going with it. He has the ability to look one way and then come back and throw it to the other side, which I think is a skill in college that’s lacking a little bit. He’s a really good player. I’m excited to watch him play. It’s going to be fun. He’s waited a long time, he’s had a long journey and I think it’s that time, to get here Saturday it’s a true blessing for him.”
Those are all encouraging comments, but as McElwain said, it’s about what Del Rio does once the games begin.
Saturday night won’t be a true indicator of what to expect when the Gators go to Tennessee or Florida State later in the season, or when LSU comes into The Swamp. But it’s the first step.
It’s no secret that the onus is on the offense if Florida is to take the next step after an encouraging 10-4 debut in McElwain’s first season.
The Gators averaged just 8 points while losing their final three games last season. It’s not all on Del Rio to change that, but he can play a significant role.
The kind he’s been waiting four years to play.
Del Rio said his father will be in town this weekend to watch his first start, but in general, the quarterback is trying not to build it up too much.
He said earlier this week he’s not thinking about running out of the tunnel as the starter for the first time.
He’s thinking about Massachusetts and what he has to do to launch the kind of breakout season many are hoping to see from the Florida offense and its new leader.
“You know I’ve definitely thought about it, but not recently, if that makes sense,” Del Rio said of the personal significance of the moment. “You kind of think that’s all you’re going to think about, but there’s bigger things to worry about, such as the game plan.”
Ryan Young is a Florida beat writer for SEC Country and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.