Saturday, February 24, 2018
Colleges

How Luke Del Rio earned Florida Gators starting QB job

GAINESVILLE — The last time Luke Del Rio ran onto the field at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium for a real game, he looked a lot like he did Friday afternoon — casually dressed in a Gators collared shirt and shorts.

"I looked like the equipment staff did," he said.

Despite the casual wardrobe, that extra time on Florida's sidelines is the biggest reason why Del Rio will run out of the tunnel two weeks from Saturday as the Gators' starting quarterback.

Del Rio had been the presumptive starter since the spring because of his time under coach Jim McElwain and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier. Of the four candidates who vied for the starting job, Del Rio was the only one on the roster last fall; top backup Austin Appleby is a graduate transfer from Purdue, and Feleipe Franks and Kyle Trask both enrolled from high school in January.

Though Del Rio couldn't play last season after transferring from Oregon State, he still had valuable opportunities to master the system during practice and meetings. Those reps, combined with the year he spent with Nussmeier at Alabama, gave him an edge in experience that the others could not overcome before the Sept. 3 season opener against Massachusetts.

"Luke's command on everything we're trying to do has been good," McElwain said.

Del Rio's command also led to two of the other deciding factors in favor of the 6-foot-1, 213-pound redshirt sophomore: consistency and leadership.

McElwain values a quarterback's ability to limit mistakes as much as their arm talent or mobility. Del Rio showed in the spring game that he can accomplish that goal.

He finished 10-of-11, with his only incompletion coming on a throwaway. He also led scoring drives on all four of his possessions — another plus, considering McElwain judges quarterbacks by how teammates play around them.

"I think I was consistent," Del Rio said. "You know, sometimes on plays, a lineman might misread a (play) that the line is doing or a receiver might fall down. It's not compounding those mistakes."

And if they do happen, the job comes down to leading your team's response.

Defensive lineman CeCe Jefferson said Del Rio's enthusiasm is contagious. If the offense is winning at practice, Del Rio will talk trash to the defense to try to fire it up. "We feel like Luke is a good leader, in my opinion," left tackle David Sharpe said. "He should be the starter."

How long he will have that title remains uncertain.

Del Rio has been around the game, and McElwain, long enough to know that the battle is ongoing. McElwain said Del Rio will start for the rest of fall camp and against UMass, but he reiterated that things can change during the season. The Gators used two quarterbacks (Will Grier and Treon Harris) in the first two games last season before settling on Grier; they had to switch back to Harris when Grier was suspended for failing an NCAA drug test.

"(Del Rio) knows that this is by no means, 'Now I have it, and it's there for good,' " McElwain said. "There's constant competition going on, as there is in a lot of the spots."

Del Rio showed his knowledge of the game in one other way this week. After he was named the starter Thursday, he knew not to call his dad, Oakland Raiders coach Jack Del Rio, though he had finally won a job he had been fighting for since 2013. His father's team was playing the Green Bay Packers in a preseason game that night, so Del Rio knew his dad's mind would be elsewhere.

"Usually on game day," Del Rio said, "he's pretty locked in."

And this year, Del Rio finally will be, too.

Tabor update: All-SEC cornerback Jalen Tabor and tight end C'yontai Lewis remain suspended after fighting during Tuesday's practice, but McElwain said he hopes to have them back with the team Thursday.

"I want everyone to understand first and foremost these are two really good guys and good teammates," McElwain said. "They're valuable members of this football team and this family. And you know what, they're good people. And yet as we go on, there's certain things and levels of expectations that we have in everything that we do.

"We'll look forward to getting those guys back hopefully on Thursday of next week and move forward and support them in every way we can, and yet not enable."

Miscellany: The Gators host their free fan day from 2-4 p.m. Sunday at their indoor practice facility. … Punter Johnny Townsend injured his thumb after it bent back catching a football from a machine. … Receiver Chris Thompson will have his leg evaluated, and receiver C.J. Worton (foot) remains out.

Contact Matt Baker at [email protected]com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.

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