UF’s Del Rio, a Swamp veteran, ready for another try

Gators quarterback Luke Del Rio
Florida quarterback Luke Del Rio talks with reporters Wednesday during the Gators' media day at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. [Brad McClenny/Staff photographer]

It wasn’t as if Luke Del Rio thought one time that his football career was over.

He thought about it a lot.

The redshirt junior quarterback was a beaten-up man when last season ended and while rumors circulated that he might be finished at Florida because of multiple injuries, he wasn’t ready to dispel them.

“I wasn’t going to come back and play if I wasn’t completely healthy,” Del Rio said. “I was pretty beaten up. I was done.

“But I never officially quit. And then, I started feeling better.”

There were some heart-to-heart talks with his father, Jack, who was acting more like a dad than an NFL head coach when it came to his son.

He wanted Luke to be sure.

You’re hurting.

Rehab is no fun.

But don’t hang up the cleats for the wrong reasons.

“He said, ‘Make sure it’s not your shoulders and knee ticking you off that they’ve been bothering you for six months,’ ” Del Rio said at UF’s media day Wednesday. “ ‘You need to know you’re not going to regret it. Even if you don’t play, when 40 years old (thinking) I wish I would have been on the team for the fifth year.’ ”

So he’s back, as confident as ever.

You want to know if it’s going to be Malik Zaire or Feleipe Franks.

He wants you to know it might just be Del Rio under center when the Gators open their season against Michigan in Arlington, Texas, Sept. 2.

He may be the forgotten quarterback in the wide-open race to lead the Gators at the start of the season, but he’s warning you — don’t sleep on the veteran.

“I don’t really care what the fans think about the competition,” he said. “I just care about taking the first snap against Michigan. I want the best quarterback to start and win games and we’re going to win.”

On Wednesday, with much of the media attention being centered on Zaire, the effervescent graduate transfer from Notre Dame, and Franks, the leader in the clubhouse when spring practice ended, Jim McElwain only has one quarterback on his roster who has played in real games in The Swamp.

“It’ll be interesting to see where he’s at off his injuries,” McElwain said. “I’ve said it; this guy was 5-1, and let’s call it, he should have been a 5-0 quarterback a year ago had I not played him in the Arkansas game, which I shouldn’t have.

“And yet we’ll see where it plays. We’ll see how he is. We’ll see where he’s at physically, but he’s definitely in the plans.”

That may make Florida fans cringe but you have to remember this — the Del Rio you saw most of the season was a shell of what he was when it started.

Let him take you through the injuries. You may need a pencil and a notebook to keep track.

North Texas: Florida easily won its first two games with Del Rio as the starter.

“Third play of the game, we ran some play. I scrambled. Two guys landed on me. I had a grade 1 or 2 AC joint sprain (in his right arm). Then, I get my knee taken out. It tore 85 percent of the MCL off the bone.”

Missouri: After sitting out two games, Del Rio returned to lead the Gators to an easy 40-14 win with an uneven 18-of-38 passing performance.

“I’m dragging my leg around and my right arm got hit again. It got a little worse but not a lot worse.”

Georgia: Florida won 24-10 with Del Rio at the controls.

“Third-and-11, I ran, slid, two people hit me even though I slid. When the nose guard fell on me, my left arm, it was on the ground. My shoulder popped out of the socket and popped back in. So now I have a torn labrum. I couldn’t take my shoulder pads off. They had to cut it. That became solid grade 2, but it’s OK. It’s my left arm.”

Arkansas: It was not pretty in a loss in Fayetteville.

“(By then), I can’t really throw that well. Throwing only makes it worse. (New England quarterback) Jimmy Garoppolo had a grade 1 and quit playing. I wanted to play. I was trying to prove I can still play.

“It becomes a grade 3 almost a grade 4. I’m done. I can’t lift my arm up.

Remember that ill-fated interception he threw that killed the Florida chances?

“I wasn’t even aiming there,” Del Rio said. “I threw it and I was like, ‘Wow.’ I knew I needed to stop, I’m just hurting the team now.

“I probably should have communicated better about how much pain I’m in, but I worked three years to get a chance to start. It’s kind of hard to say, ‘I’m in pain. I don’t want to play. You don’t know how many opportunities you’re going to get.”

That was it for Del Rio for 2016. Austin Appleby took over, Franks won the job in the spring and Florida brought Zaire in this summer.

But there are no hard feelings toward the guys trying to take a job he once held.

Just a lot of hard work.

“It was not a quick rehab,” Del Rio said. “It was not a painless rehab. To be honest, it sucked. It took about six months. But I did everything possible to be ready for camp and I’m ready. I am 100 percent, doing everything.”

He believes he can be the starter even if so many people have already dismissed him and figure it’s a two-horse race.

“What I bring to the team, I know the offense really well,” Del Rio said. “I think I’m a leader of men. I communicate really well. I know what coaches want to do.

“And I have experience. It’s funny, I go from no experience to having the most experience.”

So he has that going for him.

And really, what you and I think doesn’t matter.

We all want to fall in love with the guys who are new. Instead, the most important job on the Florida team may fall to a guy we have tossed aside as being damaged goods.

Don’t count Del Rio out.

He hasn’t.

Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at pat.dooley@gvillesun.com. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.