After watching Luke Del Rio struggle Saturday — and the two games before that — Florida coach Jim McElwain had a potentially tough decision to make at quarterback this week.
Then the choice was made for him.
Del Rio will be out for "a while" after injuring his right (throwing) shoulder during the second quarter of last week's 31-10 loss at Arkansas. An MRI will show how long Del Rio will be sidelined, but McElwain didn't sound optimistic. Del Rio had his shoulder iced after the game, and McElwain said the redshirt sophomore couldn't even lift his duffel bag.
"It's bad, man," McElwain said.
Del Rio struggled before hurting his shoulder, which is why McElwain considered benching him last week. Since returning from a knee injury against Missouri, Del Rio has completed 52 of his 100 passes for 591 yards and six interceptions. The Gators have scored more touchdowns on throws by the opposing quarterback (three pick-sixes) than by Del Rio (two).
McElwain said UF didn't know the extent of Del Rio's injury during the game, but it became apparent during film review. The fluttering interception in the second quarter was the most glaring example.
"Sometimes you have to be honest," McElwain said. "He was banged up. Played that way."
McElwain's announcement eliminated any suspense over whether the No. 22 Gators will have to make a change this week when they host South Carolina (and former UF coach Will Muschamp). The only question now is who will replace Del Rio.
The most obvious solution is Austin Appleby. The grad transfer from Purdue was 42-of-67 passing for 440 yards, three touchdowns and an interception in starts at Tennessee and Vanderbilt.
Appleby led the Gators on their best offensive stretch of the season, when they scored 21 points in the first 25 minutes at Tennessee. He added a downfield element to UF's passing game that hadn't appeared before or since. Appleby had five completions of at least 20 yards in that first half — almost as many as UF had in its next three games (six).
"That first half, he took full-on ownership of the offense," receiver Ahmad Fulwood said. "We were killing it."
Appleby was expected to get the first reps in Monday's practice, but McElwain said the competition will be open this week.
All of Muschamp's former quarterbacks to UF are gone, and McElwain didn't sign a passer in his first recruiting class. That leaves two true freshmen — Kyle Trask and Feleipe Franks. The Gators haven't ruled out burning the redshirt of either as they try to defend their SEC East title with two wins (or one victory and a Tennessee loss to Kentucky).
Each freshman has his own concerns. Trask backed up current Houston receiver D'Eriq King at Manvel (Texas) High, so he threw only 132 passes in his final two prep seasons. Franks' strong arm made him an Elite 11 finalist and four-star recruit out of Crawfordville's Wakulla High, but he remains a raw talent who could be years — plural — away.
McElwain said he can simplify the passing reads for a true freshman, if either one is ready.
"We'll find out," McElwain said.
Contact Matt Baker at [email protected] Follow @MBakerTBTimes.