University of Florida

QB Luke Del Rio takes circuitous route to Florida Gators

Florida Gators quarterback Luke Del Rio throws during spring practice Friday, March 11, 2016 in Gainesville, Fla.
Florida Gators quarterback Luke Del Rio throws during spring practice Friday, March 11, 2016 in Gainesville, Fla. The Gainesville Sun

After six schools in five years in four different states, Luke Del Rio finally has a home.

The redshirt sophomore quarterback is the odds-on favorite to become Florida’s ninth starting quarterback since 2009, but it took a long and winding road for the son of Oakland Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio to end up in Gainesville.

“It was kind of a journey to get here,” Del Rio said, smiling. “It worked out. Everything must be meant to be.”

While Del Rio believes destiny brought him to UF, the Gator Nation certainly hopes he’ll bring stability to a position riddled with volatility since Tim Tebow left town.

And yet, Del Rio’s path to UF is one even Robert Frost might envy.

The 21-year-old quarterback never thought he’d play at Florida.

Del Rio attended a pair of high schools in Jacksonville when his father was the Jaguars head coach, but then he headed out West when his dad was fired and later became the Denver Broncos’ defensive coordinator.

As a senior, Del Rio starred for Valor Christian High, earning his first scholarship offer from Jim McElwain — then at Colorado State.

“We did everything we could to recruit him there,” UF’s second-year coach said. “You could just tell the guy had something to him.”

Instead, Del Rio set his sights on a national powerhouse, turning down multiple scholarship offers to walk-on at Alabama in 2013. He immediately reconnected with Tide offensive coordinator Doug Nussemeier, who knew Del Rio’s father well from their days together with the New Orleans Saints in the mid 1990s.

“I think he was knee-high to a grasshopper,” said Nussemeier, now UF’s offensive coordinator. “It was a long time ago.”

But Del Rio’s dreams of playing for ‘Bama never materialized, so when Nussemeier left for Michigan, Del Rio transferred to Oregon State.

He saw snaps briefly as a backup in 2014, completing 8 of 18 passes for head coach Mike Riley.

And then Del Rio’s world turned upside down again.

Riley abruptly left for Nebraska that December, so Del Rio assessed his options once more and ironically zeroed in on a school he ignored for much of his childhood.

“When I decided it was for my best interest to leave Oregon State, I made a couple calls and coach ‘Nuss said he was going to be here. I knew coach Mac,” Del Rio explained.

“He recruited me at Colorado State and Alabama. I knew they were going to run this offense, so I felt really comfortable coming here.”

Despite sitting out last season because of NCAA transfer rules, Del Rio is the frontrunner in Florida’s quarterback battle with Purdue transfer Austin Appleby and early enrollees Feleipe Franks and Kyle Trask.

The 6-1, 213 pound signal-caller doesn’t have the experience of Appleby or the pure arm talent and athleticism of the two freshmen, and yet, coaches and teammates can’t stop raving about Del Rio’s work ethic, intelligence and intangibles.

“He’s kind of a gym rat,” McElwain said. “You can tell he obviously grew up around the game. He’s a guy who enjoys watching film. He enjoys being around the guys. He does a great job as a leader.”

Added senior wideout Ahmad Fulwood, who played against Del Rio in high school in Jacksonville: “He can be special. He’s smart. He’s accurate. I like the way he plays.”

Last season, Del Rio ran the scout team, getting to know his teammates and assuming a behind-the-scenes role. He worked hard and stayed quiet, watching Will Grier and Treon Harris take turns at the helm.

“You don’t want a transfer quarterback who’s on the scout team trying to be the outspoken leader when you can’t play,” he said.

But that all changed this spring.

With Harris suspended and Grier gone, Del Rio has taken a vocal and visible leadership role. He’s remained humble, too, insisting that the quarterback competition is ongoing and he “has to earn it.”

“I’ve been here, but I don’t think that makes me No. 1 right now.”

Del Rio can finally call a place home, though, and taking the road less traveled has made all the difference to him.

“If anybody told me you’d go to three colleges, I’d probably tell them they were crazy,” he said. “But everything happens for a reason, and I’m really happy to be here now.”

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