Will Del Rio be a contender in Florida’s quarterback competition?
Whenever the mention of Luke Del Rio comes up in discussion of Florida’s ongoing quarterback competition, the grumbling from many members of the fan base ramps up.
However, it may not be time to entirely count him out just yet.
While redshirt freshmen Feleipe Franks and Kyle Trask competed for the starting quarterback job during spring practices, Del Rio was sidelined for the entirety of the spring after undergoing surgeries on both of his shoulders during a two-month span. Del Rio is expected to be fully available by the start of fall camp, as McElwain noted that he is ahead of schedule
However, when asked during the spring whether Del Rio would be in the mix to compete for the role when he returns, offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier replied, “I do.”
"You look at the way Luke played when he was healthy — he played some really good football when he was healthy,” Nussmeier said at the time. “And obviously he got banged up — banged up worse than we thought at the time. … We'll get him back, get him healthy. And I think once he gets healthy, he'll go back to being the player that he is.”
On Tuesday night during his speaking tour stop in Jacksonville, Florida head coach Jim McElwain reiterated that argument and said it would be a mistake to dismiss Del Rio from the conversation.
“When you look at when he was healthy last season and the numbers he put up in the first three or four games. Very efficient,” McElwain told the media, including the Gainesville Sun. “Touchdown passes to interceptions ratio was really good. Our productivity in the red area was really good. He’s a guy that obviously knows what he’s doing and he’ll be ready to go.”
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After suffering a sprained MCL in his knee against North Texas and missing the next two games, shoulder injuries eventually took a toll on Del Rio. In his final three starts against Missouri, Georgia and Arkansas, Del Rio went just 52-of-100 passing (52%) for 596 yards and two touchdowns against six interceptions. In the Arkansas game, a hurt Del Rio memorably struggled, as he tossed two interceptions and the offense failed to reach the end zone during a 31-10 loss.
“We brought him back too early,” McElwain said. “I’ve said that. He should not have played in that Arkansas game. I’m going to make sure he’s 100 percent because he’ll want to get in there and push it too early.”
However, in his first three appearances, Del Rio went 62-of-101 passing (61.4%) for 762 yards and six touchdowns against two interceptions as Fl0rida outscored UMass, Kentucky and North Texas 101-14. Those three squads finished the 2016 season 99th, 85th and 89th, respectively in total defense. While Kentucky (35th in passing defense) and North Texas (26th) overall fared well as the year went on against the pass, Massachusetts finished ranked 106th.
The question remains how telling those numbers truly are from the first three games. Del Rio had his most efficient game against UMass, but under his leadership the offense went 9-of-17 on third down and reached the red zone on just three occasions (scoring twice on them), while Florida led just 13-7 before Del Rio connected with Brandon Powell on a touchdown pass midway through the fourth quarter.
Against Kentucky, Del Rio had four touchdowns against one interception next to his name on the stat sheet, but there were some moments in the contest where Del Rio made a few questionable throws and his accuracy came into question. Still, he finished with an overall strong performance, against a Kentucky defense that massively struggled and was out of sync.
Thanks to a dominant defensive effort, Florida stifled UNT, but it wasn’t necessarily the strongest effort from the offense under Del Rio as it scored just two touchdowns and a field goal under his leadership before he went down late in the third quarter. In that contest, Florida converted on just six of its 13 third-down tries against an overall mediocre North Texas defense. Del Rio didn’t throw a touchdown pass but tossed an interception against the Mean Green.
What many fans also wonder is whether McElwain would prefer to play a quarterback with prior starting experience in Florida’s season-opener against Michigan in Arlington, Texas, on Sept. 2. The Gators are still in the mix for Notre Dame graduate transfer Malik Zaire, but in the hypothetical scenario that doesn’t pan out, who would Florida turn to at quarterback in that game?
Would it be Del Rio, who has just six starts under his belt but four prior seasons of collegiate experience? Or would Florida start a redshirt freshman (Feleipe Franks or Kyle Trask) or perhaps a true freshman (Jake Allen or Kadarius Toney) away from home against a potential top-15 opponent in front of 100,000 attendees?
It’s been years since Florida played a season-opener of the magnitude of this year’s against Michigan, so the Gators are presented with an unfamiliar scenario where they must make a smart decision.
So, who should they turn to? The less experienced quarterback with a much higher ceiling in Franks? The more experienced signal-caller with a weaker arm and less athletic ability in Del Rio? Or, perhaps somebody else?
It’ll be up for debate plenty over the next few months, but for now Franks is “the guy” and is ahead in the quarterback race, as McElwain noted Tuesday
“I thought Feleipe did a really good job throughout the 15 opportunities this spring. I think he established himself in that room a little bit,” McElwain said.
“Feleipe is the guy right now. We’ll see from there. At the same time, whoever gives us the best opportunity to win a game is going to be the quarterback."
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