The Florida Gators are two weeks away from the first game of the 2017 season and a starting quarterback has yet to be named. Coming into fall camp, most assumed former starter Luke Del Rio would only be an accessory to the quarterback room with the emergence of Feleipe Franks in the spring and the addition of graduate transfer Malike Zaire over the summer, but Florida coaches continue to hold the stance that it is a three-man race.
Del Rio started six games for the Gators last season, but was only healthy for two of those starts. In the third game of the season against North Texas, he suffered torn meniscus and a sprain in his right shoulder, which he would later aggravate even more as he tried to play through it. A few games later against Georgia, he tore his labrum in his left shoulder, but still continued to fight through the pain.
At least until the pain was too much to bear in the very next game against Arkansas and he realized he was not only hurting himself, but hurting his team. The crushing 31-10 loss was the only blemish on Del Rio’s starting record.
He now returns healthy after undergoing two surgeries and has competed in camp, but still, fans and media continue to bash him for lack of arm strength and ability. That doesn’t go unnoticed by Del Rio, and he fired back about it on Friday.
“My arm is 100 percent healthy,” he said. “And I found it pretty ridiculous that fans are saying I had a noodle arm when I was throwing the ball 80 yards in the first game. So, they have the memory of a goldfish I guess. I’ve never had like a ridiculous arm, like Feleipe has a ridiculous arm, but I’ve always had a pretty adequate arm. I’ve been able to make every throw on time. It’s the first time in my life I’ve heard ‘you don’t have a strong arm’. So, whatever.”
He’s not completely out of line. There were plays he showed some arm strength, like the memorable overthrow of Antonio Callaway downfield on the very first play of the 2016 season. Many now forget he threw for more than 250 yards and completed at least 55 percent of his passes in the only two games he was healthy, a feat no Florida quarterback had reached in back-to-back games since Tim Tebow in 2007.
Then again, he finished the season with eight touchdowns to eight interceptions and had the worst passer rating of any starting quarterback in the SEC last year. He later owned up to that, but still doesn’t feel he deserves all the negative perception.
“It’s frustrating when you’re completely healthy for two games, but I get it,” said Del Rio. “They saw underthrown deep balls. I didn’t play well the last couple games. I also overthrew deep routes in the first two games. I understand fans remember the last thing that they saw and that’s kind of what sticks. I don’t blame them. It’s frustrating, but I don’t blame them.”
Either way, Del Rio brings back the only experience at quarterback in a Florida uniform, and he believes that is an advantage in the competition.
“Playing in six games is an invaluable experience,” Del Rio said. “That’s the takeaway from last year is, not only playing, but going through adversity, being hurt, losing once, how you handle the team when you do lose. So, last year was so important, and it was very hard, but I’m glad I was here for it.”
It’s going to be even harder this year as a late addition to the quarterback battle and two guys to compete with instead of just one. As an older, more experienced player, he is no longer afraid of the competition.
“When I was younger, when I was a freshman or sophomore, I would think like that and it’s kind of a negative mindset,” said Del Rio. “You get so caught up in, ‘OK, I got six reps with the ones. He got five. So, does that mean I’m a little bit ahead?’ It’s just incidental. They really take the reps from all 18, 19 practices and whoever is the best, most consistent, performs, made the offense a well-oiled machine, that’s who’s going to start.”
Del Rio is very confident he could be the guy for that job by the end of this competition. Head coach Jim McElwain complimented him on his play in a recent scrimmage, and while he doesn’t possess the speed of Zaire or the stellar arm strength of Franks, Del Rio said his consistency is his biggest upside.
“I think I had a very consistent camp,” he said. “I mean, we are still in camp for one more day, but last year I would have an off day here, an off day there. I thought I have been very consistent throughout camp. People know what to expect when I’m in. Really, consistency.”
While Del Rio feels good about the product he’s put on the field throughout camp, he knows there are still two other quarterbacks with strong cases for the starting job. It is right at the one year anniversary of Del Rio being named the 2016 starter, and with Michigan looming, a decision is bound to come sooner rather than later.
“We play in two weeks, so hopefully it comes before then, but it’s up to them,” Del Rio said. “I don’t really have any say in when they name a starter. I think I’ve had a good camp, but I respect the decision they make, whenever they name the starter and whoever is the starter.”