LEXINGTON, Ky. — A few months ago, facing two separate shoulder surgeries Florida Gators quarterback Luke Del Rio contemplated if it was worth it. At media day before the season Del Rio said he never officially quit but rehab isn’t fun and he knew he had a long road ahead.
Del Rio chose to come back for his fifth year of college football, third at Florida and went into a quarterback competition. He missed spring practice recovering from those shoulder surgeries and watched Feleipe Franks start to pull away with the job coming out of spring camp. Playing catch up, Del Rio came back in fall camp and went back to work trying to take that first snap against Michigan.
Del Rio didn’t win the job and was soon relegated to standing on the sideline with a headset, signaling plays to the guy that beat him out for the job. He became an afterthought with Franks playing the role of the future of the program.
“The biggest thing to me is I wanted to be as supportive as possible,” Del Rio said after beating Kentucky. “I didn’t come back to coach or mentor but if I didn’t win the job, which I didn’t, I was going to be there in every way that I could. I feel like I’ve done that.”
Against Michigan ranks was pulled in favor of Malik Zaire in the second half. Jim McElwain admitted that he thought about putting Del Rio into the game but the thought was so fleeting that it never came to fruition. Del Rio continued to work. He continued to be the best teammate he could and do whatever his limited role allowed, while preparing — or hoping — he would get a chance to play again.
“I had a feeling that I would have to play sometime this year. Whether it was, we were killing a team, or hopefully not an injury, but again injuries happen. We saw last year. Multiple guys have played every year that I’ve been in college besides one, multiple guys have played,” Del Rio said. “So, I practice as if I’m going to play. But I support Feleipe like he was the starter and helping him every way that I could. I treat people like you would want to be treated in that situation. Don’t be bitter about not playing.”
He watched from the sidelines again as Franks was given the whole game against Tennessee, where Florida had to hold to win. He traveled to Kentucky, a team he torched for 320 yards and four touchdowns a year ago.
He watched until there was just 5:54 left in the third quarter. That’s when Del Rio got the nod. He traded in his headset for a helmet and starter getting loose. The redshirt junior hadn’t thrown a pass all season but here he was entering a two possession deficit, tasked with extending Florida’s 30-game winning streak.
“We just felt we needed a jump-start a little bit,” McElwain said.
“There was a coach around here for a long time that used to throw quarterbacks in here and there at the drop of a hat. So we may have learned something from him.”
Offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier eased him into the game with a quick stand pass to Kadarius Toney, which picked up eight yards. Malik Davis ran for four and Del Rio found Brandon Powell for 18. Then, a miscommunication led to an interception.
“I knew we could move the ball on them,” Del Rio said. “It wasn’t like we were going three-and-out, three-and-out.”
Florida’s defense forced a three-and-out to give the offense another chance with time winding down.
The Gators relied heavily on the running game but Del Rio played his part completing 9-of-14 passes for 74 yards and a touchdown, while Davis and Powell combined for 13 carries on the final two touchdown drives.
Del Rio’s touchdown pass was to a wide-open Freddie Swain. It tied the game and Eddy Pineiro’s PAT gave Florida a lead.
A season ago Del Rio torched Kentucky before trying to gut it out through knee and shoulder injuries. He fell out of favor with the fans, became an afterthought after losing the job but never gave up. He deserved this moment in the spotlight.
McElwain said he’ll continue to evaluate the quarterback position moving forward. Del Rio didn’t come back to be a mentor but he’s done that. Saturday he got an opportunity to get back in the saddle and play some ball.
It’s been an incredible ride for Del Rio, one that resembles a movie script more than real life. From starter to forgotten to leading two drives to win on the road.
“It’s been a tough road coming back being healthy, competing my butt off in camp. Feleipe won the job. He earned it. I thought he played well tonight,” Del Rio said after the game. “Sometimes you just need to shake things up and get a spark. You know, going in it was nice to be back out there.”
When will that opportunity come again? Maybe this Saturday in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium against Vanderbilt.