GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida coach Jim McElwain had seemingly heard just about enough questions regarding the Gators’ quarterback competition when the topic came up again in his most recent session with reporters Monday.
“When (a decision) happens, I guarantee I will let you guys know, all right? I promise. I’m not going to keep it a secret. I will not keep it a secret,” he said playfully. ” So when it happens, I’ll tell you what we’ll do, should we just call like a quick press conference? ‘Major announcement here: The Florida Gators are going to start a quarterback.’ That’s good, I like that.”
There was no press conference, but true to his word, McElwain didn’t delay, naming redshirt-sophomore Luke Del Rio the starter in an announcement posted to the team’s website Thursday afternoon.
McElwain had previously said he wanted to have a decision made after the Gators’ second preseason scrimmage Friday, but apparently he felt he didn’t need to wait that long.
“Luke is going to work as the starter the rest of camp and start in the season opener barring any unforeseen development,” McElwain said in a statement on the team site. “Our other quarterbacks remain in the plans and are ready to move forward and help the Gators any way they can.”
This was the expected outcome after Del Rio had separated himself with a terrific spring game, going 10-of-11 passing for 176 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.
But that McElwain didn’t wait to see how Del Rio and challenger Austin Appleby, a graduate transfer from Purdue, fared in the second scrimmage Friday would seem to indicate that Del Rio’s lead in the competition had become clear through the first couple weeks of camp.
Or that McElwain simply didn’t want to have the same discussion about the quarterback battle yet again when he meets with the media prior to that scrimmage.
Instead, he’s sure to get a new spate of questions about Del Rio and what stood out about the well-traveled fourth-year sophomore, who will become the Gators’ seventh starting quarterback since the start of the 2012 season (the previous six all transferred out of the program).
McElwain will share his insights on that soon enough, but in the meanwhile, here’s what we know:
Veteran presence … in his own way
Sure, Del Rio has only thrown 18 official collegiate passes — all in 2014 at Oregon State — but he’s been around forever. Or at least it seems that way.
He started his collegiate career as a walk-on at Alabama because, he said, it was his dream to play for that program and coach Nick Saban. He spent the 2013 season with the Crimson Tide, listed as the team’s No. 3 quarterback, but he did not play in a game there.
After that fall, he transferred to Oregon State and was ruled immediately eligible because he was considered a non-recruited athlete at Alabama. He won the Beavers’ backup job and appeared in three games in 2014 while completing 8-of-18 passes for 141 yards.
While he left Alabama for a variety of reasons, he said, it wasn’t his choice to depart Oregon State. When Beavers head coach Mike Riley left after that 2014 season to take the Nebraska job, the new coaching staff let Del Rio know he wasn’t in their plans.
“Alabama was more complicated, but Oregon State was very difficult. I had a good thing going,” he said earlier this month, recounting his circuitous path to Gainesville.
Eventually he found his way to Florida and a couple of coaches who believed in what he could do. Del Rio said that McElwain had recruited him “very hard” when he was the head coach at Colorado State, but the quarterback had no desire to play in the altitude of Colorado. Along with the McElwain connection, though, the Gators offered him some familiarity as new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier had served in that same role at Alabama during Del Rio’s one season there.
That gave him a base understanding of the offense the Gators were going to run under McElwain and Nussmeier, and sitting out last season per the NCAA transfer rules gave him an extra year to further learn the playbook and prepare for this opportunity.
Appleby, who played in 17 games and made 11 start at Purdue while throwing for 2,777 yards, 19 touchdowns and 19 interceptions, is the more experienced college quarterback of the two overall, but he had to learn the Gators offense on the fly after arriving in January.
That extra time in the system has no doubt benefited Del Rio, and he has said throughout camp that his knowledge of the playbook was perhaps his greatest asset in this competition.
“I think my familiarity with the offense, my command of the offense, my familiarity with the receivers and the chemistry we’ve built over the summer and spring and just the years I’ve spent elsewhere, I think really help,” he said.
More important is what his teammates have had to say about his presence on the field.
“Del Rio knows the offense. It’s pretty obvious it’s a strong suit for him,” junior running back Mark Thompson said last week. “He knows the check downs, he knows the hots, he knows where to expect pressure, who’s where, where to put the ball.”
Said sophomore left guard Martez Ivey: “Luke is more comfortable in the offense right now because he’s been here for a year. He knows how to run it and knows how it goes.”
As everyone knows, Del Rio’s father is Oakland Raiders head coach and former NFL linebacker Jack Del Rio.
The Gators’ new starting quarterback had the advantage of growing up around an NFL locker room when his father was the head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars from 2003-11.
Earlier this month, the younger Del Rio talked about the value of the football discussions he and his father have had over the years and shared some memories of his time around the Jaguars.
That background doesn’t promise success on the field, but at such a mental position, it’s definitely an asset to have grown up discussing how to read coverages and batting around different hypothetical game situations with a guy who has landed two NFL head coaching jobs.
Expectations and confidence
Del Rio is taking the reins of an offense that ranked 100th nationally last season in scoring at 23.2 points per game and 111th in total offense while averaging 334 yards per game.
Those numbers were even more depressed during the second half of the season as the Gators averaged just 12.8 points and 271.5 yards over the final six games.
That isn’t all on the quarterback. Florida’s young offensive line needs to be much better this year after yielding 46 sacks last season — the most of any team in the country.
But steady quarterback play would go a long way to elevating the offense in year two under McElwain and Nussmeier.
For what it’s worth, Del Rio is confident the pieces are in place to make that happen.
Of course, most college football players are highly optimistic about pretty much everything in August, but it’s good to have the new leader of the offense delivering that confidence after the struggles the unit endured in 2015.
“Everybody’s more comfortable in the offense. People say that a lot, but it really does matter,” Del Rio said earlier this month. “… It’s really comfortability in the same offense, adding wrinkles that we can tailor to our offensive weapons and we’re really excited. …
“I can’t really control how people think we’re going to do. Obviously they don’t think we’re going to do too good. So we’re excited to prove them wrong.”
Depth is a good thing, too
It’s college football. It’s the SEC. No team can bank on making it through an entire season with just one quarterback, so even though he didn’t win the starting job, Appleby’s presence is a plus for the Gators.
Again, this is a guy who has started 11 games for a Big Ten program and who says he passed up other transfer options that would have given him a clearer path to playing time because he wanted to play for the Gators.
“For me there was something special about this place that I couldn’t pass up,” Appleby said at the team’s media day earlier this month.
While he started the competition at a disadvantage having to learn a new offense after arriving in January, he felt he had made significant strides since the end of the spring.
In terms of styles, Del Rio is considered more of a drop-back quarterback, and Appleby is more adept at extending plays with his feet, teammates have said. But both are capable passers.
And to have an experienced senior backup in case the initial plans go off script is a considerable luxury.
Breaking the trend?
In introducing a new starting quarterback, it’s worth also taking a look back at the position to see what Florida’s starting quarterbacks have done in recent years.
Here are the guys who have started at the position since Tim Tebow left town.
- 2010: John Brantley, 13 games (13 starts), 8-5 record, 2,061 passing yards, 9 TDs, 10 INTs
- 2011: John Brantley, 11 games (11 starts) 7-4 record, 2,044 passing yards, 11 TDs, 7 INTs
- 2011: Jacoby Brissett, 8 games (2 starts), 0-2 record, 206 passing yards, 2 TD, 4 INTs
- 2012: Jeff Driskel, 12 games (11 starts), 9-2 record, 1,646 passing yards, 12 TD, 5 INTs
- 2012: Jacoby Brissett, 6 games (2 starts), 2-0 record, 249 passing yards, 1 TD, 0 INTs
- 2013: Jeff Driskel, 3 games (3 starts), 2-1 record, 344 passing yards, 3 TDS, 1 INTs
- 2013: Tyler Murphy, 9 games (6 starts), 2-4 record, 1,216 passing yards, 6 TDs, 5 INTs
- 2013: Skyler Mornhinweg (3 starts), 0-3 record, 344 passing yards, 3 TDs, 1 INTs
- 2014: Jeff Driskel, 9 games (6 starts), 3-3 record, 1,140 passing yards, 9 TDs, 10 INTs
- 2014: Treon Harris, 9 games (6 starts), 4-2 record, 1,019 passing yards, 9 TDs, 4 INTs
- 2015: Will Grier, 6 games (5 starts), 5-0 record, 1,204 passing yards, 10 TDs, 3 INTs
- 2015: Treon Harris, 12 games (9 starts), 5-4 record, 1,676 passing yards, 9 TDs, 6 INTs
Since Brantley’s back-to-back seasons leading the offense, that’s six different starting quarterbacks for the Gators — who, again, would all eventually transfer out of the program.
Florida will hope it’s finally found a long-term solution in Del Rio. Time will tell.
Ryan Young is a Florida beat writer for SEC Country and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.