Florida's Quarterback Controversy Is Over, but There's No Less Pressure on Feleipe Franks

In the past week, Feleipe Franks has shown why he won and then lost (and then won again) Florida's starting QB job. His margin for error is shrinking with the Gators' quarterback depth depleted and the schedule ramping up.
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Before Florida retook the field following halftime against Vanderbilt last week, quarterback Feleipe Franks found a marker. Under his the band that covered his left wrist, he wrote one word: Luke.

“You want to play for somebody,” Franks said. “And [Luke Del Rio] was one I wanted to play for because he’s done nothing but support me and help me the whole time I’ve been here at Florida.”

Minutes earlier, Del Rio lay on the ground following a hit from Vandy’s Dare Odeyingbo just as he released a pass to Brandon Powell on a third-down play. When Del Rio rose, his left arm dangled at his side. An X-ray would later confirm what he clearly could tell as he walked to the sideline: He was done for the season with a broken collarbone.

So Franks, benched a week earlier in favor of Del Rio, suddenly had to lead the offense he’d been told he wasn’t the first choice to lead. In the time that elapsed between Del Rio’s injury and the moment Franks wrote Del Rio’s name on his wrist, Franks had once again shown why he keeps getting the job and why he lost it.

In the 34-second series between Del Rio’s departure and halftime, Franks uncorked a perfect throw on a deep post by Tyrie Cleveland for a 49-yard gain. It looked startlingly similar to the route Franks and Cleveland connected on for a 63-yarder to beat Tennessee two weeks earlier. That set up first-and-goal from the nine, but Franks missed on his next two passes. Then he hit tailback Mark Thompson for a five-yard gain. Florida settled for a field goal as time expired, but that field goal did tie the game and swing the momentum back in Florida’s favor. In the second half, Franks and freshman tailback Malik Davis helped the Gators take control and roll to a 38–24 win.

As Florida prepares to face LSU—the team Franks was committed to before flipping to the Gators in November 2015—there is no more quarterback controversy in Gainesville. For the first time since Will Grier’s suspension in October ’15, the Gators know exactly which quarterback gives them the best chance to win. Franks finds himself in that position by default, but there are no more questions. He’s the guy, for better or worse, and the Gators are ready to rally around him.

The biggest reason why Florida players are so willing to back Franks? He could have sulked when he got yanked at Kentucky—the second time in his three career starts that he got replaced—but he didn’t. He could have disengaged. Instead, cameras caught him on the sideline cheering for Del Rio and the offense. “When you look at the last game, he was one of the people most excited for the win,” Florida coach Jim McElwain said after the Vandy win. “He handled the way a competitor should—but better than that, the way a good teammate should. … He knew that his time is not done by any stretch of the imagination.”

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Franks made the most of the reps he got at practice. He also made the most of the ones he didn’t. He pointed out that Thursday’s practice simulated a situation nearly identical to the one the Gators found themselves in at the end of the first half. In the game, they were on their own 25-yard line with 43 seconds remaining. The yardage and time had been slightly different at practice. The quarterback had been different, too. Del Rio was the one leading the offense. Franks watched and made mental notes of everything Del Rio did correctly and incorrectly. He did this because he’d seen Del Rio do the same in previous weeks when Franks was starting. “When he came in at Kentucky,” Franks said, “he had prepared all week as if he was the starter.” So Franks did the same and got the same result.

In the second half against Vanderbilt, Franks completed six of eight passes for 114 yards as Florida relied primarily on its ground game. One of those completions—a 33-yarder that Freddie Swain caught off a ricochet—probably should have been an interception but instead led to a touchdown.

Franks still seemed plagued by a tendency to lock on to his primary target, but he did look more in command of the offense. Afterward, he and McElwain each harped on the offensive tempo. The Gators have no aspirations to run at a Big 12-style breakneck pace as their default, but they do want the offense to run smoothly and efficiently. That had been an issue with Franks in earlier games, but offensive tackle Jawaan Taylor noticed no such problem against Vanderbilt. “He was calm,” Taylor said, “and he just took over.” Receiver Josh Hammond believes Franks will get even more comfortable as he goes forward knowing he’s the starter. “I think the biggest thing would just probably be taking on more of a leadership role in the huddle and forcing guys to get on the ball fast and line up quicker so we don’t take those unforced penalties or delay of games. You know, the stupid penalties that we’ve had in the past that really have hurt us,” Hammond told reporters Monday. “I think those are the things that he’ll get with game experience and game reps that he’ll excel at in the future.”

The Gators also recognize that the challenge will increase this week. Though Troy’s offense pushed around LSU’s defense in a Homecoming upset of the Tigers, LSU played without defensive linemen Rashard Lawrence (ankle), Ed Alexander (finger) and Frank Herron (presumed suspension). Herron isn’t expected back until the Tigers play Auburn next week, but Lawrence and Alexander seem on track to return to the field against the Gators. The return of Lawrence especially could change the dynamics of LSU’s defense.

Meanwhile, Franks’s favorite target Cleveland is out with an ankle injury. With Florida’s top deep threat sidelined, McElwain knows the Tigers will crowd the line of scrimmage and dare Franks to beat them with his arm. “Obviously, they’re going to load the box with the best players there are,” McElwain said. “We’re going to have our work cut out for us, and we’ll see if we’re able to handle that.”

Franks, who handled his benching and his return to action about as well as anyone possibly could, now must prove he can handle being the unquestioned starter.