As Luke Del Rio’s pass wobbled through the air, he couldn’t fight. He couldn’t move. He couldn’t wiggle away. Vanderbilt’s Dare Odeyingbo grabbed him, and Del Rio was helpless as the defensive end plunged him into the grass, using the ground and his 272-pound body like the jaws of a nutcracker on Del Rio’s surgically repaired left shoulder.
The jaws did their job, and Del Rio reached for that shoulder. He stomped his left foot on the ground and grunted in pain before teammate C’yontai Lewis came over to help him get up and stumble to the sideline. His collarbone was broken, and at 12:45 p.m. Monday he had surgery to repair it. The play ended his season.
But as he left the field, he had some parting words for his successor Feleipe Franks.
“Feleipe,” he told the redshirt freshman, “go get it.”
That gesture made an obvious point clear: Moving forward, the 2017 season is Franks’ season. If he’s good, it will be good. If he’s not, it won’t be good. Teammate Brett Heggie noted the pressure of that role on Franks, and on Monday, his path to success got more difficult.
Florida’s top wideout, sophomore Tyrie Cleveland, is nursing a high ankle sprain and will almost certainly miss this weekend’s game against LSU.
Cleveland’s 326 yards receiving rank first on the team. Florida’s next top three receivers have combined for 283 yards. Cleveland also leads the team in touchdown catches with two, so coach Jim McElwain knows his loss is a big one. Especially with Antonio Callaway still indefinitely suspended for suspected credit card fraud.
“He’s obviously been a guy on the deep stuff,” McElwain said of Cleveland, who also hauled in a 98-yard touchdown catch against LSU last season in Baton Rouge. “So I think obviously Freddie [Swain] and Josh [Hammond] have been playing really good. …And I think it’ll be next man up.”
That was the common line among No. 21 Florida’s players on Monday: next man up. It’s common after pretty much every injury. But what do the Gators (3-1, 3-0 Southeastern Conference) have behind Cleveland?
The next-top receiver is true freshman Kadarius Toney, who has 107 yards receiving. Then there’s sophomore Josh Hammond (93) and senior Brandon Powell (83). Hammond acknowledged those numbers will need to improve to make up for Cleveland’s absence.
“It definitely hurts a lot,” he said. “He was definitely a big problem for defenses. … [But] I think other guys in our room will be ready to play.”
Cornerback Duke Dawson, who covers Cleveland and the rest of the receiver group in practice, also said production needs to increase. And he thinks it will.
“You can’t just put all the weight on Tyrie’s shoulders,” he said. “So, I mean, it’s always the next man up, and I feel like those guys are gonna do a great job this week.”
So where does that leave Franks? Cleveland was his favorite target in the season’s first three games, which Franks started. More generally, where does Florida’s quarterback position stand?
McElwain said Franks will start, and transfer Malik Zaire will be his backup and be a “big piece moving forward.” Redshirt freshman Kyle Trask is still a “ways away” with a foot injury, so that leaves true freshman St. Thomas Aquinas alum Jake Allen in the third-string role.
Without Cleveland, Franks will feel more of a playmaking burden. He will also need to be more vocal than he has been so far this year to avoid confusion.
“I think the biggest thing would just probably be taking on more of a leadership role in the huddle and forcing guys to get on the ball fast and line up quicker so we don’t take those unforced penalties,” Hammond said. “I think those are the things that he’ll get with game experience and game reps that he’ll excel in the future.”