Gators turn to veteran Del Rio to crank up the offense

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Luke Del Rio
Florida Gators quarterback Luke Del Rio during warmups before the Tennessee game in Gainesville, Florida. The Gators beat the Volunteers 26-20. [Cyndi Chambers/ Gainesville Sun/Correspondent]

In a rather remarkable and improbable comeback story, Luke Del Rio has gone from the forgotten man to THE man in the Florida offense.

Look where he was only just a few months ago. Then look at what he did Saturday night in Lexington.

“My hat’s off to him,” senior defensive end Jordan Sherit said. “The way he handled that situation, that’s a real veteran way to go about it. He never complained once.”

Last spring and summer, the junior had fallen completely off the radar, and it appeared his opportunity to be the quarterback at Florida had come and gone.

Still recovering from a knee injury and surgery on both shoulders, Del Rio was seriously considering giving up football. But, after some heart-to-heart discussions with UF coach Jim McElwain, he decided to rehab his injuries and give it one more shot. When he did finally return, he was buried on the depth chart, and many were assuming he’d probably be a backup the rest of his UF career.

He was forgotten by most. Dismissed by many.

But all that time he was being ignored, Del Rio was doing what he does — working, grinding and preparing himself as if he were the starter in case the call ever came.

Sure enough, the call came in the second half against Kentucky last Saturday night. And Del Rio was ready.

Looking for a spark to ignite a lethargic offense, McElwain replaced Feliepe Franks with Del Rio, and Del Rio delivered two fourth-quarter touchdown drives to erase a 13-point deficit and lead the Gators to a 28-27 victory.

The winning score came on a five-yard touchdown pass from Del Rio to wide receiver Freddie Swain with only 43 seconds remaining.

His personal comeback was made complete when McElwain named him the starting quarterback Monday.

“They put him in the game and he looked cold-blooded back there,” Sherit said. “Relaxed, poised and he led that offensive line and the rest of the offense to a win. Really, that was a time where we didn’t have our best game by any means. The offense had our backs. That did wonders for team morale.”

An offense that stalled early in the third quarter started moving when Del Rio came into the game.

The rhythm was better, the tempo faster, the overall offense more efficient. And, you could sense a growing confidence as the fourth quarter wore on.

“Feleipe, he didn’t do anything horrible,” McElwain said. “I just felt that we needed a little bit of a kick-start at that juncture in the game. Luke gave us that. I think it’s a testament to his work to prepare himself to continue to be the starter.

“That’s one thing I can say about Luke is he looks at it like, ‘My time will come, I better be prepared.’ In this case, he did a really good job of that.”

Del Rio’s strength is his knowledge of the offense. He knows it and knows where to go with the football. That’s how he won the starting job heading into last season. That’s why he’s back in that role again.

His knowledge and comfort level in the offense showed up in the fourth quarter against the Wildcats.

“He wasn’t afraid of making a mistake,” slot receiver Brandon Powell said. “He got in, his first pass he threw an interception. He came to the sideline and was still telling us that we were going to win the game. That showed. He was getting the ball to his playmakers and they were making plays for him.

“He’s a vet. He’s been here. He was 5-1 (as the starter) before he got hurt (last season). He knows the offense. He knows where to go with the ball. It showed. He won us the game.”

The offense is ready to move on now with Del Rio. And it will move on quicker with him under center. In the UK game, there was a noticeable change in pace of play when Del Rio took over. The Gators got lined up quicker, got plays off quicker, and developed a rhythm that had been missing.

“When he came in, his experience and just knowing what to do and being honed in to the plan really helped us come back down 13 points,” sophomore wide receiver Josh Hammond said. “Luke has been around this offense for a really long time. He knows it probably the best out of all those guys. Just his ability to help guys get lined up and play fast and not have as many mental errors really helped us excel in the fourth quarter.

“(We were) moving a lot faster. His tempo and just rushing everybody to get to the ball and play fast. That comes with his experience.”

Experience. That’s what the Gators have at quarterback now. And a guy with resolve and some swagger, traits that have helped him make this improbable comeback.

“The thing I always liked about him is when you talked about the swagger. The study, the preparation — that creates the legitimate swagger,” McElwain said. “Some guys think they have swagger, but they haven’t put in the work. He actually has put in the work. His teammates respect that and obviously they’re ready to go with it.”


Saturday

Who: Vanderbilt (3-1, 0-1 SEC) vs. No. 21 Florida (2-1, 2-0)

When: Noon

Where: Steve Spurrier-Florida Field at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium

TV: ESPN

Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850


Contact Robbie Andreu at 352-374-5022 or robbie.andreu@gvillesun.com. Also check out Andreu’s blog at Gatorsports.com.

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