[Updated, 5:29 p.m.] During the battle for the starting quarterback role in August, the consensus was that Luke Del Rio knew the offense better than the other candidates and always seemed to know where to go with the football.
Well, the ball is in his hands now.
After leading the Gators on two fourth-quarter touchdown drives to pull out a 28-27 victory at Kentucky last Saturday, Del Rio has replaced redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks as the starting quarterback for Saturday’s game against Vanderbilt.
“Moving forward to this week, Luke will take the starting reps in practice,” McElwain said Monday. “And, yet, the other two guys (Franks and Malik Zaire) will still get their reps as well and we’ll see where it goes from there. That should answer your quarterback question.”
Del Rio replaced the struggling Franks with a little more than five minutes left in the third quarter in Saturday’s game and the Gators trailing the Wildcats 24-14. Going into the fourth quarter, UF was down 27-14.
Del Rio led the Gators on two touchdown drives over the game’s final 11 minutes to pull out the 28-27 win, giving UF its 31st consecutive victory over UK. The winning score came on 5-yard TD pass from Del Rio to wide receiver Freddie Swain with 43 seconds remaining.
Del Rio finished the game with nine completions in 14 attempts for 74 yards and the touchdown.
“He was just telling us that we were going to win the game. He wasn’t afraid of making a mistake,” senior wide 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 was making plays for them.
“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, which ground to a halt in the third quarter, came to life after Del Rio took over.
He wasn’t perfect. He was intercepted in his first series and he misfired on a deep pass to wide receiver Tyrie Cleveland. But he led the Gators to two touchdowns and converted a critical fourth-down play with a 10-yard pass to running back Mark Thompson to keep the winning drive alive.
The offense was clearly more efficient with Del Rio under center.
“Yeah, a little bit, rhythm,” McElwain said. “We needed a jumpstart. It was like, sometimes maybe not all cylinders were hitting, and yet I think he came in and gave us that boost.
“One thing I will say, as disappointed as Feleipe was, he was also one of the most excited that we got the win. And Malik, the same way. Those were two guys that had smiles on winning the game, and that speaks a lot for them.”
Del Rio was 5-1 as the starter last season, but missed the second half of the season with knee and shoulder injuries. He underwent surgery on both shoulders in the offseason and missed the spring and portions of the summer.
Franks emerged from the spring on top of the depth chart at quarterback and strengthened his hold on the position with an excellent summer and preseason camp and was named the starter the Wednesday before the opener.
Just a little over a week ago, Franks looked like the quarterback the offense would grow with this season after his 63-yard TD pass to Cleveland on the final play won the Tennessee game.
He went from hero to backup in a little more than two quarters of play in Lexington.
“As I said after the game and looking at film, it really had nothing to do with Feleipe doing anything wrong,” McElwain said. “We were kind of in a stall mode there after half. We went through a couple possessions that we didn’t get anything out of. Kind of jump-starting, kick-starting, however you look at it. Luke’s had a great attitude.
“Not to say Feleipe won’t start again. It’s one of those deals where he continues to get better.”
Franks was also benched in the second half of the opener and replaced by Zaire.
McElwain said his attitude has remained good throughout.
“I would say that,” he said. “At the same time, I think he’s done a great job of sitting and looking. I think he played well at times through the previous game. It’s never fun, and yet, when you learn from it, this guy is going to be a really good player, and he is now, there’s some things he can continue to learn and work on and he’ll do that moving forward.
“We just were sputtering. A lot of times in that situation making a change at left guard doesn’t have a big impact on that.”