Luke Del Rio wasn’t on the field last season when Florida and Georgia faced off in their annual neutral-site matchup at EverBank Field in Jacksonville, the stadium where he learned to love the sport as a child.
Ineligible to play for UF last season as a transfer from Oregon State, the quarterback went for the pregame action, saw the buses roll in and then retreated to a friend’s house in the city.
On Saturday, he will be on the field leading the No. 14 Gators offense against the Bulldogs in the stadium where he spent most of his childhood while his dad, former Jacksonville Jaguars coach and current Oakland Raiders coach Jack Del Rio, led an NFL team through practice.
“Growing up there for eight-and-a-half, nine years, being able to play with my dad and watch his team compete on that field is really special,” the Gators quarterback said. “We still have a game to win, but it will be fun to be back there.”
As a child, he roamed the sidelines of the stadium, known then as Alltel Stadium, spending most of his time with the special teams players because they often had the most free time.
When he was 8, Del Rio remembers playing catch on the practice fields with then-rookie kicker Josh Scobee.
At one point, Scobee skipped a pass on the ground.
The ball bounced off the field and hurled toward the young Del Rio, hitting him in the face. He sustained a black eye.
Scobee froze in terror.
“Don’t tell your dad! Don’t tell your dad!” Del Rio remembers Scobee telling him. “I’ll get cut.”
Instead, Del Rio told his dad he ran into a door.
In the years since, Del Rio has enrolled at six schools (three high schools, three colleges), first bouncing around as his dad changed jobs with NFL teams, later doing so to get a starting job of his own.
“It’s really awesome, the whole deal with Luke,” Jack Del Rio said on a teleconference last week. “I think he’s fought hard to keep his dream alive of playing big-time football.”
After trekking across the country — from Jacksonville to Colorado to Alabama to Oregon and back to Florida — he landed in Gainesville.
“I kind of have to pinch myself sometimes,” Luke Del Rio said, “because I remember in high school I would just pray in bed, ‘Just let me play football at some level in college,’ and [now] I’m the starting quarterback for the Florida Gators.”
But with only four career starts under his belt, Del Rio knows he still has room to grow.
So far this season, the redshirt sophomore has completed 57.6 percent of his passes for 998 yards (249.5 per game) with seven touchdowns and five interceptions.
During Florida’s 40-14 homecoming win against Missouri — his first live action in almost a month after recovering from a sprained right MCL — the quarterback completed just 18 of 38 pass attempts and threw three interceptions.
The offense racked up 523 yards in that game but managed to put up just 19 of Florida’s points.
“It’s not like we’re not getting first downs and moving the ball,” Del Rio said.
“We just need to execute in the red zone area and stop turning the ball over on my part.”
His next chance to do that is Saturday at Everbank Field.
“That’s a special place,” UF coach Jim McElwain said, “and I know as a kid when you grow up and you drive by a stadium like that every day or you see it on television, your opportunity to go out and play in it, man, that’s pretty cool.”