GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Feleipe Franks walked across Gale Lemerand Drive on Wednesday afternoon and headed toward Florida’s locker room in the South End Zone at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Dinner waited after he showered off the sweat from practice on a sweltering day. Back when he lived at home in tiny Crawfordville, Fla., he would have had to make sure Zetar and Dusty got their dinners before he worried about his own.
Zetar and Dusty were the Franks family horses. Feleipe’s father, Don, often worked late teaching GED students. So it fell to Feleipe and older brother Jordan to feed the horses, who spent much of their time in the same five-acre pasture where the Franks boys taught themselves football by imitating clips they’d watched on YouTube. Jordan, now a tight end at Central Florida, would run routes. Feleipe would study clips online — he tried hardest to emulate the throwing motion of Jameis Winston, who played 25 miles north at Florida State — and then throw the passes.
Franks doesn’t have to feed horses after practice now. He doesn’t have to seek out coaching points on YouTube, because Florida offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier and head coach Jim McElwain focus most of their attention on the quarterbacks. Franks can spend the bulk of his time competing against fellow redshirt freshman Kyle Trask for the right to lead the Gators’ offense come September.
While Franks played in the pasture and then Wakulla to Florida’s Class 5A state title game as a senior in 2015, Trask played for a Manvel (Texas) High team that fell to powerhouse Katy in the region finals in Trask’s sophomore, junior and senior seasons. Notice that sentence didn’t say “Trask led” or “Trask quarterbacked,” because Trask’s situation in high school was quite unusual for a quarterback who wound up with a scholarship offer to an SEC school. Trask didn’t start for Manvel. The Mavericks ran an up-tempo spread, and 5-10, 170-pound D’Eriq King—who now plays receiver at Houston—was a better fit for that particular scheme than the 6-4, 238-pound Trask. Trask got playing time because he was too good to keep on the bench, but he didn’t get the same high school reps most quarterbacks in his situation did.
“I think I just kind of took that as a blessing,” he said. “It taught me to never take a rep off, make every rep count. I’m always in a competition. I’ve always been in a competition all throughout high school. It’s been a blessing for me just to teach me harder work ethic.” Could Trask have started elsewhere? Absolutely. But Texas has a rule that requires players to sit a year if they transfer. Also, Trask’s parents liked Manvel High and had no intention of enrolling their son at another school. “My mom, she wasn’t going to let me transfer for something like football,” Trask said Wednesday.
So Trask sought his scholarship on the camp circuit. Florida linebackers coach Randy Shannon—now the Gators’ defensive coordinator—had noticed Trask at a Manvel spring practice in ’15 while scouting future Ole Miss signee Deontay Anderson. Shannon tipped off Nussmeier, and Nussmeier called to invite Trask to camp. Trask came to Gainesville for two different camps. At the second, the Friday Night Lights one-day camp Urban Meyer originally launched in ’06, Trask sufficiently impressed Nussmeier and McElwain. They offered him a scholarship the next day. They told him to sleep on the offer, and he did, but he called the following day on the ride back to Texas and accepted. Florida had beaten out Lamar, Houston Baptist and McNeese State. Florida coaches told Trask they intended to sign another quarterback in the class of ’16. That other signal-caller was Franks. But first McElwain and Nussmeier had to flip him from LSU.
When Franks did decide to spurn LSU in favor of Florida, he did so knowing the Gators planned to sign Trask. While many top-shelf quarterback recruits bristle at the idea of a school bringing in another quarterback in their class, the idea never bothered Trask or Franks.
“For me, personally, I love competition,” Franks said. “It only makes you and the person across from you better.”
As they met with the local media Wednesday, the difference in their exposure was obvious. Franks’s every move during his recruitment was cataloged. Trask was virtually unknown before he committed to Florida, and then when he committed and never wavered, there was little else to write about. Franks, a veteran of hundreds of interviews with recruiting writers, came off polished and at ease. Trask, who didn’t face the same scrutiny in high school, came off as inexperienced. How the quarterbacks interview, of course, has nothing to do with how they throw. But the difference did once again highlight the contrasts in their backgrounds.
If Nussmeier and McElwain could somehow combine the best traits of each quarterback into one human, this would be so easy. A player with Franks’s confidence, athleticism and arm strength combined with Trask’s decision-making and accuracy would start almost anywhere. But Florida coaches have to decide what they can improve between now and September and what they can live with. Do they start Franks, who carries himself like a starter but struggles with accuracy at times? Or do they start Trask, who puts the ball where it needs to go but occasionally spends too much time processing because he doesn’t have as many reps to make running an offense feel like second nature? Or do they take the familiar player behind door No. 3? That’s incumbent starter Luke Del Rio, who is out for spring practice following shoulder surgery.
Whoever wins the job will have the best receiving corps Florida has had since the Tebow era, a quality back in Jordan Scarlett and a line that seems ready to turn from a liability to a strength. Choosing Del Rio would rile a fan base tired of the mediocre quarterback play that has become Florida’s trademark since Tim Tebow left following the ’09 season. Choosing Franks or Trask would inspire hope that the offense can get out of the 100's in the statistical categories that matter. It doesn’t necessarily mean the offense actually will, but it means it won’t look exactly the same.
Trask can win the job if he shows an improved command of the offense and if he learns to process quickly.
"It's definitely a big step up and that's also something I've been trying to focus on, adjusting to the speed of the game ever since I stepped on campus,” Trask said. “And I feel like since a year ago, I feel a lot more confident in the speed of the game.” Now, Trask must learn to properly diagnose and make a play with bodies flying around him. "I've been really trying to focus on working through my progressions and not getting stuck on one, but working on it all the way,” he said. “One. Two. Three. Four.”
Franks can win the job if he raises his completion percentage and cuts down on interceptions. He has all the physical tools, and he feels confident in his grasp of the offense.
"I think I've come a long way,” he said. “I think my command has grown a bunch since last spring, and it's really playing out to be fun for me now just to be out there and actually just play the game—play what I've been playing my whole life and not have to stress about 'What am I doing this play? What am I doing this next play?' Now that I've settled in and know the playbook I can go out there and have fun.”
And while it would be natural for these two competitors for the starting job to act like rivals, they get along quite well. They play ping-pong together. (Trask said Franks, who also has far more reps in that sport, dominates.) They play basketball together. (Franks said both are content to bomb away from the perimeter.)
“A lot of people think it’s hatred between one quarterback and another,” Franks said. “But any competition I’ve ever been in, it’s not like that. You’re here to help each other and help each other get better.”
McElwain and Nussmeier eventually will have to choose between the two or decide to go back to Del Rio. (Unless the SEC grants the Gators a waiver and allows them to take a graduate transfer; then former Notre Dame quarterback Malik Zaire might also join that mix.) More than likely, the choice will come down to the two redshirt freshmen, and it probably won’t get made until preseason camp. Until then, Franks and Trask will duel for the right to lead the offense.
“To be honest with you, it’s a great competition between me and Kyle,” Franks said. “It’s the best one I’ve ever been a part of. It’s going to make me and him better every day and everybody on the team better every day. Coach Mac and Coach Nuss are here to make that decision. It’s not me or Kyle’s decision. We’re going to grind it out every day to see.”