University of Florida

After lackluster season opener, Gators offense has room to grow

In this April 8, 2016, file photo, Florida quarterback Luke Del Rio points out defenders during the Orange and Blue Debut Spring Game at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, in Gainesville.
In this April 8, 2016, file photo, Florida quarterback Luke Del Rio points out defenders during the Orange and Blue Debut Spring Game at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, in Gainesville. AP

On his very first snap as a starting quarterback, Luke Del Rio took a risk.

He dropped back, checked his options and fired a pass deep downfield to wide receiver Antonio Callaway.

The heave was about five yards too long.

“You’re always excited for the first play... I was really juiced up,” Del Rio said. “It was probably the farthest I’ve ever thrown a football. I threw it and was like, ‘Oh, that’s way too far.’ I didn’t think I could overthrow him, but I did.”

Del Rio would eventually calm the excitement and delivered a passable performance in the No. 25 Florida Gators’ 24-7 season-opening win over UMass. He was 29 of 44 for 256 yards and two touchdowns.

But with Florida opening its Southeastern Conference schedule on Saturday, Del Rio will need to take another step forward if the Gators want to remain competitive.

“I thought he played OK. He’ll play better,” UF coach Jim McElwain said. “You can see the sense of calm out there the whole [time] he was there. There wasn’t a lot of panic. That’s crediting a good quarterback.”

“His team believes in him,” McElwain said.

Del Rio showed flashes of his potential throughout the game — his first in front of more than 88,000 in The Swamp.

On the Gators’ second possession, Del Rio orchestrated an 11-play, 71-yard scoring drive capped by a 12-yard touchdown pass to an open Callaway in the end zone. Del Rio threw for 52 yards on 5-of-6 passing and added a pair of carries for 9 yards — including a quarterback sneak on fourth-and-1 to keep the drive alive. The five passes went to four different receivers.

“Luke just played his game,” said receiver Brandon Powell, who led the team with 73 yards and had a fourth-quarter touchdown catch. “He stayed comfortable in the pocket and threw the ball. That’s just Luke.”

McElwain added: “He’s confident. I’ll tell you what he does. He does a good job of studying the plan and understanding where it’s gonna be.”

But while Del Rio found spot success, the offense as a whole had difficulty extending it through four quarters.

The offensive line struggled in pass protection and “moped around,” forcing Del Rio to scramble and make plays with his feet.

The running backs failed to get a push at the line of scrimmage, averaging just 3.7 yards per carry. The most notable run was a failed fourth-and-1 from junior college transfer Mark Thompson, a 6-2, 237-pound bruiser back who was stuffed at the UMass 5-yard line.

Six players caught multiple passes, but most of the completions came on screens and checkdowns.

“We were having successful plays,” Del Rio said. “[It was] just penalties, one missed blocked here, a drop here, a missed throw here, just little things like that kind of hinder drives individually. But I thought we did a fairly decent job of executing the game plan.”

Those mistakes didn’t cost the Gators on Saturday against the Minutemen, a team with eight wins over the last four years.

But miscues could come back to haunt them this week against Kentucky.

Florida has won 28 straight against the Wildcats, but the last two have been decided by just 11 total points.

Del Rio acknowledged that Florida needs to make explosive plays to win, but added that he isn’t going to force a big play for the sake of it.

“Those have to come to you,” he said. “When you try to force those that’s when you turn the ball over, that’s when you get behind.”