It wasn’t a question Luke Del Rio thought he’d be asked. Ever. Especially not after claiming Florida’s starting quarterback job in 2016. But nearly one year to the day after that happened, here he was in a room with two other quarterbacks vying for that coveted spot. And here was the dreaded question.
How do you balance competition with mentoring other quarterbacks?
“I didn’t come back to be a strict mentor or a coach,” he answered. “I wouldn’t have come back if I didn’t want to play, so I’m focusing on competing.”
For Del Rio and his fellow competitors — Feleipe Franks and Malik Zaire — the word competition has been central to their lives since fall camp started on Aug. 3. Del Rio, who will be 23 by the end of the season and is playing for his third school, is used to it. So mentorship? No. At least not now. Not while the three are fighting to take the first snap when the Gators open against Michigan on Sept. 2.
Coach Jim McElwain has maintained that each quarterback will get a fair chance, but Del Rio seemed to be at a disadvantage. At 6-feet tall, he’s smaller than Franks. He’s also not as athletic as Zaire. And he’s coming off a season-ending shoulder injury. But he said he’s 100-percent healthy, and that he’s played to his strength — consistency — in camp, despite criticism.
“I found it pretty ridiculous that fans are saying I had a noodle arm when I was throwing the ball 80 yards in the first game,” he said. “So, they have the memory of a goldfish I guess.”
Joking aside, he noted he’s definitely playing with disadvantages. But he tries not to think about it.
“There’s nothing I can do,” he said. “I just try to do the best to my ability and I found that quarterbacking is a lot more than just what you look like, how hard you can throw, how far you can throw… Yeah, there’s prototypical size, but there’s more than that.”
Franks would probably agree, but if there’s one thing he definitely has, it’s prototypical size. At 6-foot-6 and weighing 238 pounds — he weighed 219 last year — he’s the tallest quarterback at Florida. He also has the strongest arm. But as a redshirt freshman, he’s inexperienced.
Nevertheless, he loves the competition.
“I want to do better than the person in front of me,” he said. “Better than the best... Bringing Malik in and Luke being the good quarterback he is and making me compete against them, I think that’s really made me step my game up to another level.”
Del Rio agrees, noting he’s seen a “night and day” transformation in Franks’ understanding of the playbook and leadership role.
Zaire, meanwhile, probably didn’t imagine this much competition when he came to Gainesville as a graduate transfer from Notre Dame. With Florida’s subpar quarterbacking in the past, it seemed unlikely that the staff would bring in a graduate transfer to decorate the sideline. But so far, he’s been shown no favoritism, and he said he doesn’t mind. He’s just going to try and prove himself at every opportunity.
“At the end of the day, I’m trying to be the best in the country,” he said. “My focus is on beating everybody. So it’s not just the guys that are competing for this job, but it’s the guys in the whole SEC, it’s the guys in the whole country.”
So will the competition end before the season opener? Will the losers remain positive when their number isn’t called? Is the race really close, or is it all for show?
The first two questions will be revealed with time. The last one was answered on Friday.
“It really is,” McElwain said. “And that’s a good thing.”