Jim McElwain surprised a lot of people Thursday by announcing Luke Del Rio as the starting quarterback. Most thought he would be the guy whenever it was announced, but the Gators have their last scrimmage of the fall on Friday and not many expected an announcement to be made before then.
With the news, Del Rio was able to realize a dream he has wanted while on a journey through three schools and three plus years of really not being able to get on the field.
Del Rio walked on at Alabama in 2013 and was redshirted while actually challenging for the job. When offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier left, Del Rio transferred to Oregon State and was placed on scholarship at the PAC-12 school. He saw limited time in his year there and the head coach moved on to Nebraska. The new Oregon State coach didn’t give him the right signs that he would play any time soon at the school, so he headed to the next stop at Florida.
Del Rio redshirted last year, learning again from Nussmeier and getting even more acquainted with the McElwain/ Nussmeier offense. There was plenty of talk from those that watched practice that Del Rio was the quarterback that should have been on the field, but that wasn’t possible given the transfer rules.
So he waited and he worked, what he had already done the previous two plus years after high school graduation. On Thursday the announcement was made and he knew it was all worth it.
"Obviously really excited… long time coming,” Del Rio said of learning he was named the starter. “Not necessarily here, but just in college in general. I feel like I earned it. I thought I had a really good camp. I'm glad the coaches saw it the same way."
"It's definitely gratifying that patience and all the hard work paid off.”
Del Rio, whose father is Jack Del Rio, the head coach of the Oakland Raiders, had a lot of time where he was left alone to think about his future. His family helped keep him on the mission, but it took a lot of internal fortitude as well to get to this point.
“People don't realize when you transfer it's not like you leave one school and you're at the next school the next day,” he said. “In between Alabama and Oregon State and Oregon State and Florida there were probably seven months combined where everybody else is in school and my dad is coaching, my mom is helping out with my dad and my sisters. Lot of lonely days and just trying my hardest to stay focused. Just having the support system that I did really helped keep my head on straight and stay positive.
"Really the thing that kept popping into my head was you've come so far, why would you give up now? It kind of motivates you; it’s kind of a mean thing to say, but it kind of motivates you when you see other guys stop. Maybe it gets too hard or they get discouraged. The fact that you keep going, I thought that was always kind of the driving force behind me. And I knew that I had the talent. People were kind of starting to say 'Does he not see that these coaches don't want him to play for them?' But I always had confidence in myself. Maybe it's a little bit of stubbornness, but it paid off in the end.
“It was definitely rewarding to hear coach Mac give me the keys to the car, as he calls it."
This is his third year in the same offense. One at Alabama and then last year at Florida, that likely played a huge part in why he is now the starter.
"I'm very, very comfortable in this offense… third year in it,” he said. “I've known coach Mac for a long time. Known coach Nuss for a good bit as well. I think the fact that I've had this relationship has really helped me in this camp being comfortable with the offense. And also being here last year helped me with the wide receivers. I may not have been able to practice with them, but just kind of the chemistry that we formed off the field relationally. We're good friends. Everybody kind of gets along. It's a very tight-knit team. So I think all those factors kind of played a role in it."
Something we have heard about Del Rio is that he has been a big influence on others around him. When someone makes a mistake he knows what the mistake is when it happens and he goes and talks to them about it. When someone does an exceptional job, he lets them know that they did. Leadership is a quality that is easy to see from the young man.
"I think it's very important for any quarterback,” he said of the ability to lead. “Whether you want to be or not, you're going to be looked at as the leader. You're the one that's talking, giving the plays. You're touching the ball every play, so whether you like it or not, you're going to have to be a leader. I embrace it. I'm glad that they view me as a leader because I have some natural leadership abilities, but at the same time, it comes with experience. It comes with knowing what to do, being accountable, and like I said before consistency. Me personally, I want to follow a guy who does it every time the right way."
Even the defensive guys understand what Del Rio brings to the table. When they aren’t on their game, he knows just how to get them to be better.
"He’s a natural leader and he’s consistent,” said sophomore defensive lineman CeCe Jefferson when asked about Del Rio. “There isn’t a day that goes by that he doesn’t come out fired up and getting his side of the ball ready. It’s contagious.
“Some days he will come out fired up and the defense won’t come out fired up. He’ll make a good play and start talking crap to us and get the defense fired up. His leadership and aggressive instinct is contagious."
The surprise of being named earlier than expected is something Del Rio believes can help the team.
"It definitely helps the team kind of unify and settle around one guy,” he said. “It's not just because I got named the starting quarterback. That doesn't mean I'm THE guy of the team. I'm the quarterback. There's still 10 other guys on offense, and there's a lot of guys on defense. But to be able to have it sorted out I think does help."
Now he gets to run out of the tunnel in a couple of weeks as a Gator player and that is something he is really looking forward to.
"It's going to be really exciting,” he said. “I'm really looking forward to it. Last year, I was running out of the same tunnel kind of looking like this. So I looked like the equipment staff did. It'll be nice to be wearing pads this time."
With all the excitement, he also knows the job comes with a lot of scrutiny. When you are the quarterback at Florida, the fans expect a lot from you.
"It comes with the territory,” he said. “Everybody knows that that comes to an SEC school. Being at Alabama and here now, it's all across the SEC. There (are) high expectations. We expect to be in Atlanta, we expect to win and then we expect to be in contention for the national championship. So I knew that when I got here and it's part of the reason why I did come here. I want those expectations. I want to play on the biggest stages. We definitely have enough talent to be able to do that. It's just putting together the pieces and staying consistent with our work each week."