Inside the visiting team locker room underneath Tennessee’s Neyland Stadium, Luke Del Rio called his team together.
Florida’s starting quarterback spent the game relegated to the sideline, dressed in full pads and a hefty brace on his left knee to support his MCL sprain while he handed the offense to backup Austin Appleby.
He watched the Gators’ second-half collapse that resulted in a 38-28 loss to the Volunteers on Saturday, UF’s first loss in the series since 2004.
Even though Del Rio didn’t play, the rest of the team heard his voice afterward.
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“Everybody stick together,” defensive back Marcus Maye recalled Del Rio saying. “We’re still good.”
And while UF coach Jim McElwain classified Del Rio as “highly doubtful” for Saturday’s road game against Vanderbilt and the 23rd-ranked Gators will rally around Appleby once again, it has become apparent that Del Rio, for now, is still the de facto leader of this offense.
“The reason we had him dress the last game, I really felt he did a great job on the sideline,” McElwain said of Del Rio. “He was really good for our team. … He’s a valuable piece of this.”
But if Appleby can prove his value to Florida’s offense on Saturday, things might start getting interesting.
The Purdue graduate transfer is expected to start his second straight road game on Saturday against the Commodores and will look to build on an up-and-down performance during Florida’s loss to Tennessee. The 6-4, 240-pound quarterback threw for 296 yards -- the third-most by a UF quarterback in his debut -- and tacked on three touchdowns and an interception. He had three completions that went for at least 30 yards in the game, which is one more than the Gators had in their first three games combined.
“It was a blast just to get out there and play,” Appleby said. “You miss playing. To go into that environment and get a chance to play, it was awesome. I felt comfortable from the first snap to the last snap.”
But his production -- and the offense’s productivity in general -- slipped in the second half.
Outside of a 16-play, 86-yard touchdown drive late in the fourth quarter, Appleby led Florida offense to five three-and-outs, a turnover on downs after four plays and a two-play drive capped with the interception.
Even with the way the game unfolded, Appleby’s teammates rallied around their quarterback, saying he did enough to win under almost any other circumstance.
“He took on a leadership role,” starting left tackle David Sharpe said. “[He] stepped up, told us what we had to do. He made his calls and he was just confident."
McElwain added: “I thought he played well. … There’s things that happen, and at the quarterback position, you know, he’s gotta do those things better, which he’ll learn this week and see how we go moving forward.”
Once Del Rio returns, though, just how much playing time Appleby will receive is up in the air.
And Appleby said he’s fine with that. He acknowledged that controversy inside the quarterback room can divide a team. He’ll do what he’s told to do, he said.
“I don’t count my reps,” Appleby said. “I make my reps count.”
If his reps count Saturday against Vanderbilt and Florida comes out with a win, he might shift the power into his hands for good.
“What happens after that is not in my hand at all,” Appleby said. “I would like to at least put some pressure on and be the quarterback for this team. I think I am. I didn't come here not to be. But again, that's a question for Coach Mac.
“Hopefully my play takes care of itself.”