Luke Del Rio is a player who could make or break Florida’s season in 2016.
He plays the most important position in football, quarterback, where the Gators need vast improvement in order to be better offensively. Florida began to find its groove last year with Will Grier under center, but following his suspension, the offense and passing game regressed with Treon Harris.
Harris (indefinite suspension) and Grier (transfer) aren’t with the team now, and the starting job is Del Rio’s to lose after his strong showing in the spring game. However, Del Rio has little playing experience and a lot to prove at quarterback if he gets the nod for the season opener.
Del Rio isn’t the efficient, methodical game manager coaches and fans hope he will be. At 6-foot-1, Del Rio doesn’t posses the ideal height for the position, nor does he have exceptional arm strength. He’s the son of an NFL coach, a student of the game and knows Florida’s playbook like the back of his hand.
But that doesn’t automatically translate to points on the field, especially for a quarterback who’s never dropped back to pass in the SEC. It’s not mop-up duty at Oregon State. The increased level of talent along the defensive line and in the secondary could doom Del Rio, and Florida’s offense isn’t good enough around him to still be productive if he struggles.
Del Rio has to be able to stand in the pocket and deliver throws on a consistent basis. Otherwise, the Gators will turn to graduate transfer Austin Appleby, who had serious turnover issues at Purdue that cost him his job. He also hasn’t played in the SEC and might run into trouble against tougher competition.
Even if Appleby plays well enough to get Florida through the season, this is his last year of eligibility and the Gators would once again have to start from scratch at quarterback in 2017. At that point, they would be relying on a benched Del Rio and three freshmen quarterbacks, assuming Feleipe Franks and Kyle Trask redshirt this fall.
The Orange & Blue Debut wasn’t a fluke for Luke. The command and comfort he had with the offense carries over into the season, and Del Rio thrives. He completed 10 of his 11 pass attempts in the spring game for 176 yards and two touchdowns. That kind of stat line, with more snaps available in an actual game, could make the Gators very dangerous on offense.
This is Del Rio’s third year playing under offensive coordinator and quarterback coach Doug Nussmeier after spending one season with him at Alabama and another last year when he transferred to Florida. He also has great chemistry with Jim McElwain, who coached Del Rio twice as a prospect in summer camp and offered him his first scholarship. Having that much familiarity with two coaches and their offensive system could be a match made in heaven for Del Rio.
He might also make up for the shortcomings of his game in other areas. His father, Oakland Raiders coach Jack Del Rio, told SEC Country, “I look for a quarterback who’s smart, tough and accurate. (Luke) has those three things and he’s got leadership ability.” Florida coaches and players have backed up that assessment.
McElwain expects Del Rio to not only be as productive as Grier, but “take it farther than that.” If that comes to fruition in 2016, the Gators could potentially have a three-year starter in Del Rio. That would provide much-needed stability at quarterback and give Nussmeier plenty of time to develop Franks, Trask and 2017 commit Jake Allen.