Three years in the making: Luke Del Rio ready to lead

Waiting has become the main theme for the college career of Florida Gators quarterback Luke Del Rio. The decision to walk-on at Alabama rather than take a scholarship offer to a smaller school left him waiting for an opportunity there. Del Rio moved on to Oregon State, and had minimal opportunities there before a coaching change in Corvallis led him to Gainesville.

Del Rio had already been granted a transfer waiver when he left Alabama for Oregon State, which didn’t help his chances of getting a similar waiver when he applied for immediate eligibility in 2015 at Florida. That appeal, as expected, was denied and the waiting game began again.

If you were at Gator Walk last year you may have seen Del Rio. He tended to blend into the crowd with blue jeans, a ball cap and a Florida shirt, but he was rendered, essentially, a fan on Saturday.

Even more frustrating than blending into the crowd may have even been practice. Running the scout team can be rewarding. You’re getting an opportunity to help the team, even if you aren’t going to play on game day. As a quarterback, though, there isn’t really a lot of room to improve yourself or your game and you certainly aren’t going to be looked at in a leadership role.

“I really just tried to focus on what I could do, because they show you a card and you throw it to a guy, so all I could do was focus on footwork and accuracy and being the best teammate I could,” Del Rio said of running the scout team in 2015. “You don’t want a transfer quarterback who’s on the scout team trying to be the outspoken leader when you can’t play that year.”

That’s why this spring was so important to Del Rio. With nobody in front of him he knew it was an opportunity to earn the starting job, something he hadn’t done outright yet in three years. That meant doing the little things. He impressed his teammates by the way he carried himself in 2015, with Jake McGee being particularly impressed with Del Rio’s approach while sidelined.

“He’s a good dude,” McGee said. “He’s a dude I would want to play with.”

“It’s something that really shows how much it matters to someone because it’s easy when you’re out to sort of disappear, take the easy way, the lazy way,” McGee continued. “But he didn’t do any of that. He really tried to get as good as he could get every time last season.”

Del Rio has the experience. Jim McElwain saw something in him and offered him a scholarship when Mac was at Colorado State. Doug Nussmeier worked with Del Rio when the two crossed paths at Alabama, but Nussmeier has known Luke since he was a kid, when Nussmeier was on the Saints and Luke’s father, Jack Del Rio, was on staff.

The spring opened up with four quarterbacks on the roster, none of them had the experience or knowledge of the offense that Del Rio had. It would have been easy for Del Rio to shut out the rest of the quarterbacks in the room with him. He had a distinct advantage and could have parlayed that to an easy win in the starting quarterback battle.

He didn’t.

“He’s been nothing but helpful. When my head was spinning a little bit early he took the time to help me out a little bit and show me the ropes,” Purdue graduate transfer Austin Appleby said. “He’s just a good dude. He just gets it. It’s fortunate and I think it’s unique to have a quarterback room that truly supports everybody.”

Del Rio split a lot of the first team reps with Appleby all spring. There was a week stretch where Del Rio tried to do too much and his play, mainly a nasty habit of throwing interceptions followed. Del Rio blames that stretch on trying to do more than what was asked of him inside the offense. McElwain and Nussmeier’s offense isn’t complex to run and Del Rio has the best grasp on it. He’s proved that to the staff and the Orange and Blue Debut was his opportunity to show the fans just that.

Del Rio competed his first two passes, one for 46 yards and the other for a 14-yard touchdown. On the night he completed 10-of-11 for 176 yards and two scores. It was as impressive a debut as he could have hoped for. When pressed, McElwain admitted that Del Rio was a little ahead of the other three quarterbacks on the roster.

“Whether Coach Mac says I have a slight lead or not that doesn’t change how I work, how I study, how I prepare,” Del Rio said when told what McElwain had said to the media minutes earlier. “So through these next summer workouts it will be big to get better as an offense, not just me. Everybody needs to get better and I need to get a lot better.”

Spring camp is long. The body takes a pounding over the course of 15 practices and the spring game culmination is like a final exam, signaling the end of class and the start of the next chapter.

That doesn’t mean the Gators will rest. Del Rio has waited three years to have a team look to him as a leader and he’s not ready to let his teammates take a rest just because spring camp is over.

“Next week,” Del Rio deadpanned when asked how quickly he’ll get back with the offense and receivers to continue throwing and working out.

“Next week we’ll start again.”

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Nick de la Torre
A South Florida native, Nick developed a passion for all things sports at a very young age. His love for baseball was solidified when he saw Al Leiter’s no-hitter for the Marlins live in May of 1996. He was able to play baseball in college but quickly realized there isn’t much of a market for short, slow outfielders that hit around the Mendoza line. Wanting to continue with sports in some capacity he studied journalism at the University of Central Florida. Nick got his first start in the business as an intern for a website covering all things related to the NFL draft before spending two seasons covering the Florida football team at Bleacher Report. That job led him to GatorCountry. When he isn’t covering Gator sports, Nick enjoys hitting way too many shots on the golf course, attempting to keep up with his favorite t.v. shows and watching the Heat, Dolphins and Marlins. Follow him on twitter @NickdelatorreGC