Stephen Morton
October 24, 2016

GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) Quarterback Luke Del Rio had a chance to attend his first Florida-Georgia game last season. He had tickets. Decent seats, too. He even made the hour-and-a-half trip from Gainesville to Jacksonville to tailgate beforehand.

But as kickoff approached, Del Rio headed to a friend's house to catch the action.

''To be honest, I'd rather be on the field or watch it on TV,'' Del Rio said Monday.

On Saturday, he won't have a choice. Del Rio will return to Jacksonville, where he spent a big chunk of his formative years, and take center stage in one of the Southeastern Conference's most storied rivalries.

No. 14 Florida (5-1, 3-1 SEC) has won two in a row and 20 of the last 26 in the series against Georgia (4-3, 2-3). But this will be Del Rio's first even though he spent nearly a decade hanging out with NFL players in and around the stadium.

''Yeah, yeah, a lot of very good memories,'' he said. ''Growing up there for eight-and-a-half, nine years, being able to play with my dad and watch his team compete on that field is really special. We still have a game to win, but it will be fun to be back there.''

He also has a chance to give the Del Rio family as many wins at the Jaguars' EverBank Field in two weeks as the hometown team has there in the past 12 months. Luke Del Rio's father, Jack, celebrated a 33-16 victory at Jacksonville on Sunday. It was his first game there since the franchise fired him with five games remaining in the 2011 season.

Now, it's the younger Del Rio's homecoming turn.

''Hopefully, the Del Rio family can go 2-0, you know, back-to-back weeks,'' he said. ''It's kind of interesting the way it worked out.''

Del Rio struggled in his return from a sprained left knee against Missouri on Oct. 15. He completed 18 of 38 passes for 236 yards, with a touchdown and three interceptions.

He looked rusty, but then again, it was only his fifth collegiate start.

''Yeah, I'm learning a lot every game, good or bad, just having fun out there,'' he said. ''I kind of have to pinch myself sometimes because I remember in high school I would just pray in bed, `Just let me play football at some level in college,' and I'm the starting quarterback for the Florida Gators. So I'm tremendous, tremendously blessed and thankful that I'm in this opportunity and this situation.''

Del Rio spent most of high school in the Jacksonville area. And much of his spare time, especially during summers and on Sundays, was spent around the Jaguars.

Luke and Jack played catch often on the practice field, and the elder Del Rio even has a picture of them sharing a moment after the Jaguars beat Denver - along with then-backup quarterback and former Florida star Tim Tebow - in the 2010 season opener in Jacksonville.

''That was one of the special moments in my coaching career just being able to have my son there, had a big hug and embraced after the game and just a good moment,'' Jack Del Rio recalled last week.

With the Raiders staying in Florida to train before playing at Tampa Bay on Sunday, Del Rio plans to return to Jacksonville for his son's first Florida-Georgia game.

''Yeah, it's really awesome the whole deal with Luke,'' the coach said. ''I think he's fought hard to keep his dream alive of playing big-time football. ... I'm just glad to see him with such good people in a place where he feels comfortable.''

No doubt, Luke Del Rio feels comfortable in Jacksonville. He rattled off a number of former Jaguars who befriended him over the years, including star running back Maurice Jones-Drew and popular place-kicker Josh Scobee.

But it wasn't always perfect. Jones-Drew used to skunk him in table tennis in the locker room, and Scobee once one-hopped a football into his eye while they were playing catch inside the stadium.

''I was like 8, my hands were late getting to the ball and the ball met my eye before my hands met the ball,'' Del Rio said. ''Black eye. My dad was like, `What happened to you?' and I was like, `Ah, ran into a door' or something like that because Scobee was a rookie, so he was like, `Don't tell your dad! Don't tell your dad! I'll get cut!' But yeah, fun times.''

---

AP college football website: www.collegefootball.ap.org

You May Like