University of Florida

From journeyman to starter: Quarterback Luke Del Rio embracing chance to prove himself

Defending national champion Alabama was picked by the 331 media members in attendance for the SEC Football Media Days in Hoover, Alabama, as the favorite to repeat as the Southeastern Conference champion in July.
Defending national champion Alabama was picked by the 331 media members in attendance for the SEC Football Media Days in Hoover, Alabama, as the favorite to repeat as the Southeastern Conference champion in July. AP

Luke Del Rio didn’t have his sights set on transferring again.

Walking on to the Alabama Crimson Tide in 2013 to start his career was a dream, an opportunity to be on the best team in the country despite having a handful of scholarship offers from which to choose. He never played a down.

The subsequent move to Oregon State the next year was supposed to be it for the quarterback. He had a good rapport with coach Mike Riley and his staff. He would spend his first year on the bench learning the system as incumbent starter Sean Mannion finished his career and then he would compete for the starting job.

But then Riley left for Nebraska, and Gary Andersen took over.

And then came the message — clear as day — during the height of spring ball: You’re not going to play here.

“That hurts,” Del Rio said. “I put a lot of effort, a lot of time into being the best player I could be and then somebody tells you that you can’t play here. That’s not easy.”

He needed a change of pace. He needed a chance.

UF came calling. Del Rio answered and soon found himself heading to Gainesville — just an hour southwest of where his career started in high school six years and five schools ago.

“Everybody sees and thinks ‘Oh wow. You’re still going. You’re still chasing the dream,’ ” Del Rio said.

Come Saturday, when Florida opens the season against Massachusetts, he will have his first real chance to make his dream a reality. Under the lights at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, Del Rio — the redshirt sophomore quarterback with 18 career college pass attempts and son of Oakland Raiders coach Jack Del Rio — will lead Florida’s offense against the Minutemen.

It’s been a long journey.

But for Luke, it’s just getting started.

“I feel confident in my ability,” he said. “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think I could play and start. I didn’t come here to sit on the bench.”

As a kid, Luke Del Rio spent his summers roaming the sidelines of EverBank Field while his dad coached practice.

With Jack Del Rio at the helm of the Jacksonville Jaguars, a 10-year-old Luke had the chance to get up close and personal with some of the team’s top players.

He hung out with kicker Josh Scobee (“He had the most time off,” Luke said.) and played ping-pong with running back Maurice Jones-Drew.

It fueled his adolescent aspirations to one day make it to the NFL, and it gave him an early glimpse of how NFL players functioned on a day-to-day basis.

“It helps a lot,” he said. “Outside of just knowledge of the game, just seeing guys interacting in the locker room, how they prepare, how they handle themselves as a professional and then you see guys held responsible for their mistakes — no one’s holding their hands.”

So he worked. And he worked. And he worked some more. He honed in his skills. He took responsibility for his plays — the good and the bad.

“I think any time a young man gets the opportunity to grow up around the game like Luke has, and to be around the phenomenal coaches and players he has, obviously you get that gym-rat mentality,” UF offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier said. “... When you watch the way Luke conducts himself on a day-to-day basis, those things over time have rubbed off on him, and he’s taken that to heart.”

As Luke grew older and his future as a quarterback became more promising, he began to pick his dad’s brain, learning how to think like a defender. The two would go back-and-forth on different plays and different formations from opposing perspectives: Luke trying to find the home-run play; Jack trying to blow up the play before it even began.

“He always has an answer for whatever I throw at him,” Luke said.

On the field in high school, though, everything Luke threw seemed to pan out.

In his final two seasons — as a junior at Episcopal High School in Jacksonville and as a senior at Valor Christian in Colorado — he had 4,855 passing yards and 48 touchdowns.

“Luke never had what I would call an air to him,” said Dave Hess, Luke’s coach at Episcopal. “His dad, of course, was the Jacksonville Jaguars head coach, but you would have never known that when you related with him.”

And yet at the same time, he isn’t afraid to put his foot down and rally his teammates behind him.

“We look to him as a leader,” offensive lineman David Sharpe said. “When he tells us let’s go and let’s get it on, we’ve got to stop and listen to him. He’s a great vocal leader.”

When Del Rio stood in the shotgun on his first drive of Florida’s Orange & Blue spring game, it was is first semi-live playing experience in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, his first time under center in front of the fans and his first time at Florida where the mistakes actually count.

The Gators’ offense was going no-huddle, immediately running to the line of scrimmage after an 8-yard run from Jordan Cronkrite opened the scrimmage.

Four wide receivers were flanked — two on each side of the field — and Cronkrite stood to Del Rio’s right before being motioned out wide.

Standing alone in the backfield, the center hiked the ball into Del Rio’s hands. He took two quick steps back and fired a dart to his right, finding an open CJ Worton about 25 yards down the field. Worton broke past a Marcell Harris tackle attempt and sprinted along the sideline for an extra 20 yards. One throw, 46 yards.

“Luke I felt did a good job of letting the game come to him,” UF coach Jim McElwain said.

Two plays later, he threw a fade to tight end DeAndre Goolsby for a 14-yard touchdown.

He would lead three more touchdown drives during the game.

“You definitely want to put your best foot forward, especially as an offense,” said Del Rio, who completed 10 of 11 passes for 176 yards and a pair of touchdowns. “You want to put up points. You look at the great Gator teams, they’ve done a great job of putting up points.”

And in what he calls a quarterback-friendly offense under McElwain and Nussmeier, Del Rio has an opportunity to thrive.

The Gators run a pro-style offense, one that feeds on balance between the run game and the passing attack. The quarterback is focused more on precision than mobility, more reliant on quickness with his reads than his feet.

It’s complex, with a bevy of variables and presnap motions available at the tip of the quarterback’s hands. But masked in the complexity is a world of simplicity, everything McElwain can offer built off a handful of age-tested schemes.

“You can have great concepts,” Del Rio said, “but if you have a million ways to read it, you’re not going to have much success.”

And after having last year to learn the system — something none of the other quarterbacks on Florida’s roster had the luxury of doing — Del Rio has spent the last six months focused on mastering the minute details.

“He’s got a lot of football savvy,” Nussmeier said during spring camp. “The guy’s been around football. He grew up around it. I think he’s got great demeanor, great confidence in his ability, and he’s really good in the locker room.”

Each day as Del Rio walks past Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, he sees a trio of statues, a sign of the school’s past success at quarterback.

Steve Spurrier. Danny Wuerffel. Tim Tebow.

Three Heisman trophies. Five All-America honors. All three of the school’s national football titles.

Del Rio looks to follow in their footsteps.

“Any college program that’s had success, whether it’s individual or team success and national championships … there is a tradition that people expect to be upheld,” he said. “Those are definitely our goals. It’s everybody’s goal every year to make it to the national championship.”

Those national championship hopes, though, have been few and far between since Tebow’s final year in 2009.

Del Rio will be the Gators’ eighth starting quarterback since Tebow took his final snap.

And with a new season on the horizon and an SEC East title to defend, Del Rio will be at the center of an offense for the first time since high school.

He will be following up a 10-win season that ended with an offensive implosion and a three-game losing streak, taking over an offense that scored just two offensive touchdowns in its last 12 quarters of regulation.

“It always kind of lights a fire under you when people don’t believe in you,” Del Rio said. “And I think as a competitor, you get excited when somebody has doubts about your abilities. We’re excited.”

But until he takes the first snap against Massachusetts, drops back and fires his first pass, he isn’t taking anything for granted.

“It’s definitely something that I look forward to, but the biggest thing that I’m trying to keep focused on is one day at a time,” Del Rio said. “The first game’s going to come here, it’s going to be here, it’s going to be at night, and it’s going to be a great time, but I can’t focus on that right now because then I won’t be my best in the present.”

Game plan: UF secondary

First-round draft picks Vernon Hargreaves III and Keanu Neal are gone, but the Gators still field one of the top defensive back units heading into the season. Leading the way is junior Jalen Tabor, a first-team All-SEC member last season who more or less outplayed his mentor Hargreaves in 2015. Tabor is suspended for the season opener, but that should not make much of a difference against an underdog UMass team. Holding down the other side of the field is Quincy Wilson, a junior who has potential to have his own breakout season.