McElwain in fact said that Luke Del Rio was going to be ready to play LSU this past weekend before the game was postponed.
“We were prepared to play him this week,” the Gator skipper said. “We’ll plan to play him again obviously moving forward as we go. We’re excited about that. Luke is excited and itching to go.”
With an undisclosed knee injury that sidelined him for away games at Tennessee and Vanderbilt, the team doctors and trainers have been close attention to the healing process.
“It swelled up a little bit if I’ll be straight up on Wednesday,” McElwain said of last week. “But we were assured that that was kinda normal. He worked fine on Wednesday, we were good to see where it was on Thursday and he was ready to take the majority of the first-team reps.”
Throughout his football playing days, De Rio has never been sidelined by an injury.
"I've never really had a big injury,” he said. “I broke my arm in high school, but I wore a club and played.
"Senior year, so I kind of had to play. It's tough, but injuries are part of football and the training staff did such a tremendous job of getting me back quickly. We really attacked this thing with constant rehab and constant treatment. They did a tremendous job."
The LSU game was the game he set his mind on returning. He was very disappointed that the game didn’t happen.
"It was always my goal,” he said about being ready to go last weekend. “To be honest, I wanted to play against Tennessee, but it wasn't quite ready. I would have been able to play last week. We're all obviously upset that we didn't get to play."
Del Rio’s path to getting on the field and play in college has been chock full of challenges. Some of those challenges were self-made like walking on at Alabama where he knew the competition was going to be tough. Another obstacle to getting on the field was sitting out the year to transfer to Florida after he went from Alabama to Oregon State. He finally got on the field this year in a starting capacity and had things end abruptly with an injury. It could have made a weaker man buckle.
"Yeah, it's tough, but going back to my support system, my family, friends, teammates, coaches, they did a tremendous job at making sure I was in good spirits and understanding that this isn't a season-ending thing,” he said. “It's just a few weeks and really just attacking rehab and treatment with that same mindset. If you're constantly down and thinking 'Oh, I wish I was playing,' well, of course you wish you were playing. Be there for your teammates. Be there for the guys who are playing so that they can go out and play the best they can play."
While constantly in teammates’ ears during practice and the games, behind the scenes Del Rio was working hard to get back as soon as he could.
"I did everything I could to try to play every week,” he said. “It was painful, but it wasn't even about pain. It was about functionality. Could the knee handle it? I was at the point last week where it could."
Del Rio was asked about the time of the injury when his head coach went out to see him on the field, became emotional, and had an outburst toward the opposite sideline for what he thought was an unnecessary hit on his quarterback. McElwain put on kind of a show on the field at that moment and it wasn’t lost on Del Rio.
“I didn’t quite see it, I kind of heard it,” he said. “I heard the stadium get kind of loud but it wasn’t like cheering it was like yelling, upset. I looked over and he’s about to blow a gasket and five players have to hold him back. It’s awesome to see a coach that will stand up for you like that. That’s who you want to play for. You always talk about ‘we play for our coach, we play for each other’ but for him to show that it goes a long way.”
In his absence the last two weeks, senior graduate transfer Austin Appleby played. It was a mixed bag for Appleby as the quarterback, but Del Rio was helping him along the way and happy with the job he did.
"It's always good to have two quarterbacks that have played,” he said. “Not only played but played in this offense. I played some at Oregon State. He played a lot at Purdue. That's good experience, but to be able to play with the guys that you're on the team with right now, that's very valuable. I thought he did a great job and prepared as good as he could prepare. I'm proud of the way he played."
The last six quarters the offense has skidded a bit. Just 20 points scored in the last game and a half and that side of the ball struggled more than that. There is still some work to do and having the starting quarterback return could help in a lot of areas.
“I think the biggest thing is just consistency,” he said. “We’ve seen that we can play at a really, really, high level in the running game and in the passing game. It starts up front with the offensive line but we obviously have a big role as quarterbacks; getting us in the right plays, getting us out of bad plays and it’s really just doing your job on every play.”
It really is as simple as everyone on every play doing their individual part in a game and if they do that things will work out.
“If 10 guys are doing their job it’s probably not going to be a good play,” Del Rio said in his perfect coach speak. “You really do need everybody and it’s funny because you think, oh backside wide receiver is blocking on a running play is not going to be a big deal but what if it cuts back and the corner makes a play when it would have been a touchdown. Simple things like that. Everybody doing their job on each play and we’ll be fine.”