Officially unofficial: QB battles don't stop when spring ends

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Jim McElwain has the air of a man without a care in the world. Slouched in his chair, his feet kicked up on a coffee table, he can reflect on Florida’s spring game and feel content. It was there, a little more than a month ago, that Luke Del Rio appeared to separate himself at quarterback, completing 10 of 11 passes and possibly solidifying a position that has been priority No. 1 for McElwain since his arrival in Gainesville a year and a half ago.

It begs the question: Do the Gators finally have their missing piece?

If they reached Atlanta with inconsistent QB play last year, what could they do with Del Rio?

The defense is still loaded and the offensive line should be better, so it’s not as if he needs to throw for 3,000 yards for them to win, right?

But before we continue down that train of thought, isn’t there’s a more pressing question to consider? Lost in the hype for the season, have we stopped to ask if Del Rio is even the starter?

Not to be the bearer of bad news, but he’s not. Officially, the depth chart is wide open. McElwain has said that Del Rio leads the race, sure, but he’s not ready to write off Austin Appleby.

McElwain grins when he’s asked about Del Rio. It’s the same look you get from Florida fans around Gainesville these days — confident, eager for the future. But he doesn’t go to Del Rio right away when discussing his quarterbacks.

“I really like our quarterback room,” he said. “Austin Appleby was a starter in the Big Ten and is very intelligent. He knows how to study and install, knows how to implement situational game plans and process and go about that piece.”

Maybe he’s playing mind games, starting with Appleby before Del Rio. Maybe it’s alphabetical order. But when he finishes talking about the quarterbacks, he says how both Appleby and Del Rio are impacting Kyle Trask and Feleipe' Franks. Even though he likes Appleby and Del Rio, he doesn’t lean one way or another and you don’t get the sense that he’s holding back for argument’s sake. Rather, he’s content to let it play out.

And this is where you need to understand something important: You need to forget what you think you found out this spring. Unless a starter has been named and a press release has been beamed out for the world to read, nothing is set in stone. What you saw during the spring games wasn’t real. It was a glorified scrimmage and one of 15 practices. Most of those 14 other practices were behind closed doors, so handicapping a QB race at this point is dubious.

Besides, if you talk to coaches about their quarterbacks in particular, you’ll hear less about spring game stats than any other position. More than anywhere else, they’re concerned with things like leadership and work ethic. And now is the time when those characteristics shine through.

The competitions we declared winners and losers for weeks ago didn't end when spring practice came to a close. Without mandatory practices and fewer scheduled meetings, now is the time when QBs separate themselves in the eyes of the coaches. Even though their contact is limited, coaches can see who is spending time in the film room, who is working out in the gym, who is gathering their receivers to get in a few throwing sessions during the week. It’s all taken into account.

You can call it cliche, but those moments of leadership are important. It’s why you’ll hear Alabama coach Nick Saban say again and again that he wants a quarterback to “win the team” rather than win the job. When he says he’ll wait for someone to “take the bull by the horns” he means the entire offense, and by extension, the locker room.

If we named starters based on what we saw during the spring, Alabama might not have had Blake Sims and Jake Coker the last two years. Neither looked sharp at A-Day, but it didn’t matter. Sims was a favorite among teammates, and Coker, after a year of cheering on Sims from the bench, earned a similar respect. They weren’t elite talents, but they were competitors, and while coaches like Saban believe they can teach an average quarterback to play better, they know they can’t teach those intangibles.

Kentucky coach Mark Stoops felt confident enough to name Drew Barker the starter after the spring, but cautioned that while he’s seen a big change in Barker, “This is one semester. He needs to have a great summer; he needs to be a great leader in organizing all voluntary workouts and throwing with receivers and running backs and tight ends.”

Said McElwain: “As much emphasis as you put on the spring, your team is actually developed over the summer. Your locker room is built. Your leadership is built.”

There are more than 100 days until the first game is played, so be patient. Of course everyone is entitled to their opinions based on what they saw this spring, but of the 14 teams in the SEC, only Kentucky, Arkansas (Austin Allen), Ole Miss (Chad Kelly) and Texas A&M (Trevor Knight) have official starters. There’s a reason for that.

For those who haven’t pulled the trigger, there’s still time to decide, and they’re going to use every minute of it.