When Luke Del Rio couldn’t lift his duffle bag after Saturday’s game, Jim McElwain knew something was wrong.
“He’s a tough guy. Never said anything,” McElwain said. “Had I known the severity, (I) probably wouldn’t have (kept him in the game).”
On Monday, Del Rio and at least three other UF starters were ruled out for Saturday’s game against South Carolina, including starting linebackers Alex Anzalone and Jarrad Davis. Two other players are listed as highly questionable with another listed as a game-time decision.
But the news of Del Rio, who has played in six games this season and has been the team’s clear-cut starter under center when he has been healthy, could be the biggest blow to a Florida team still leading the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division with just two conference games remaining.
“Sometimes you have to be honest. He was banged up. Played that way,” McElwain said of Del Rio. “And, you know, looking at myself in the mirror, we should have made a change at halftime.”
McElwain said it will be an open competition in practice this week despite backup quarterback Austin Appleby having much more experience than UF’s other two quarterbacks: freshmen Kyle Trask and Feleipe Franks.
Appleby has played in four games this season and has thrown for 470 yards, three touchdowns and one interception while completing 61.1 percent of his passes.
Franks and Trask haven’t taken a meaningful in-game snap since high school.
But McElwain wouldn’t rule out any possibilities. He said he once started a freshman quarterback late in the season at Montana State: Rob Compson, who started three games near the end of the 1995 season.
McElwain said Appleby will receive the first snaps in practice, but he will evaluate all three players during the week.
(I’ve) been doing this a long time,” McElwain said. “(I’ve) been on both ends of that where they’re ready to put you in Ferris Bueller’s parade, and then when they’re ready to hang you after a loss. So I get it. That’s business for you.”
Who will step up at linebacker?
Eight games into the season, Florida’s biggest strength has turned into its biggest question mark: its linebackers.
McElwain said Anzalone, a redshirt junior, had surgery on his arm on Monday and will be out for the foreseeable future. Davis, a senior, has been nursing an ankle injury for several weeks and will also be out for Saturday’s game, and McElwain said he doesn’t know when Davis will return.
Davis and Anzalone were the leaders of UF’s defense and led the team in tackles with 56 and 53, respectively.
They were also the two players responsible for calling out defensive plays during the game and making audibles at the line of scrimmage. With both sidelined, senior defensive lineman Joey Ivie said that responsibility may fall on freshman linebacker David Reese.
“It’s going to be difficult at first. (Davis) is the heart of the defense. Alex, he’s had an unbelievable year.” Ivie said. “It’s definitely a kick to the defense.”
McElwain said the linebacker void will be filled by Reese, senior Daniel McMillian, freshman Vosean Joseph, redshirt freshman Kylan Johnson and redshirt junior Cristian Garcia.
Of that group, Reese is the only player with more than 13 tackles this season.
“Like they always say: man down, man up,” McMillian said. “The young guys just gotta step up and go hard in practice like they’ve always been doing.”
Agony in Arkansas:
When asked to identify the most disheartening aspect of Saturday’s 31-10 loss to Arkansas, McElwain paused for a moment before answering.
“How long do we have?” he asked.
McElwain said that Arkansas, which was coming off of a bye week, won the battle at the line of scrimmage and physically dominated UF’s linemen.
The Razorbacks had one of their most successful running attacks of the season against Florida’s defense. Arkansas’ Rawleigh Williams rushed for 148 yards, his second-highest total of the year, and two touchdowns.
“Just the way they took it to us physically. Give them credit, they used that off-week and used it well,” McElwain said.
"That, I think, was really disappointing.”
Luke Del Rio stands on the sideline during Florida's loss to Tennessee on Sept. 24.