Jim McElwain knows of no perfect method to conduct a quarterback competition, although he has evaluated plenty of them.
Florida’s coach faces another one when his Gators open preseason practice next week, and McElwain predicted that the eventual winner will be the quarterback who performs most consistently under pressure.
“I don’t know the formula,” McElwain said last week during his SEC Car Wash appearance at ESPN headquarters. “I do know putting them in situations that are graded and high-pressure is something that you have to try to do from a practice standpoint, and then evaluate those situations that are important to help you win a ballgame and don’t get caught up in the flash of the bomb. It’s more how you consistently help the people around you play better. That’s what we try to do.”
Recent scholarship recipient Luke Del Rio seemed to take the upper hand in spring practice, capping it by completing 10 of 11 passes for 176 yards and two touchdowns while leading the first-team offense in the Gators’ spring game.
The fourth-year sophomore and Purdue graduate transfer Austin Appleby, who made 11 starts and passed for 2,777 yards with the Boilermakers, adds a veteran presence to Florida’s quarterback room that was absent in recent years.
“It’s been great to see the dynamics of the competition that’s going on, but more than that, those two older guys affecting those two younger guys in how you go about your daily preparation at the position,” McElwain said. “And to see how they’ve actually motivated the people around them to get out there and do a little extra, that’s been really fun."
McElvain sees a lot of positives with his quarterbacks, "and our team has really rallied around that room,” he said. “The importance of the individual position rooms and how they go about their business is, I think, sometimes overlooked. I’m not talking about just the play on the field, I’m talking about how they go about their day-to-day routines. It’s fun to be around that quarterback room.”
Del Rio is a member of his third FBS program in four years. He walked on at Alabama in 2013 before transferring in 2014 to Oregon State, where he completed 8 of 18 passes for 141 yards in three games. He transferred once again to Florida last year and sat out the 2015 season under NCAA transfer rules.
Practicing in three different locations could easily hamper a quarterback’s development, but the coach’s kid -- Del Rio’s father, Jack, is head coach of the Oakland Raiders -- also learned valuable lessons about how to digest the massive volume of information that quarterbacks must learn to function properly, McElwain said.
“Putting all these schemes into a different nomenclature and dissecting what they are, sometimes these guys think they invented the game on offense. But I certainly haven’t,” McElwain said. “It’s pretty interesting when you look at it. A curl flat’s a curl flat. How you read it, maybe things are a little different. But at the same time, I think his exposure to the different things have helped him, especially in the learning process.”
“Is there a better guy to learn from? I don’t know,” McElwain said.
Del Rio might be close, but he doesn’t have the job yet. Florida’s coaches will grade plenty of practice reps in August and select their starter sometime before the Sept. 3 opener against UMass.
A year after losing redshirt freshman Will Grier to a suspension and eventual transfer, then having to rely on erratic sophomore Treon Harris -- who has also left the program since the end of the 2015 season -- McElwain now has a solid mix of veteran and rookie talent.
He believes the two leaders in the competition -- upperclassmen Del Rio and Appleby -- have the knowledge and skill sets to bring to the position a stability that was missing in the second half of 2015.
“We’ve got great arm talent and some guys that really understand how to study what we’re trying to do offensively, and the exposure has been really good to them,” McElwain said. “Austin, the guy that was his offensive coordinator [at Purdue, John Shoop] and I worked together at the Raiders. There’s a lot of similarity there. And obviously in Luke’s case, he was at Alabama the year after I left with Nuss [former Alabama and current Florida offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier], so there’s some familiarity with what we try to do, which I think is really good.”