A not-so-welcoming homecoming, the Florida Gators are preparing to face a familiar foe on Saturday when Feleipe Franks and the Arkansas Razorbacks roll into Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
"That's my brother," shared UF running back Malik Davis on Monday. "When he left it was definitely hard, but he was just making the right decision for himself."
"It'll be different for sure," center Brett Heggie foreshadowed of facing his former roommate. "He's going to come prepared and come ready to play. But so will we, so it should be fun.”
Of course, although it feels longer ago in the COVID-19 age, Franks was a quarterback for Florida just ten months ago. He transferred to the SEC West in January a few months following a dislocated ankle suffered against the Kentucky Wildcats. Florida's Heisman candidate Kyle Trask earned Franks' starting role immediately and never looked back, which gracefully led Franks to the NCAA transfer portal.
Now, Franks leads an Arkansas team that has taken the SEC and country by surprise, owning a .500, 3-3 record in head coach Sam Pittman's first year on the job - at Arkansas, or anywhere for an FBS program. Such a record comes as a major surprise against a full-SEC schedule as Arkansas had not won a conference game since 2017 prior to this year.
Much credit can be given to Franks who has undoubtedly elevated the Razorbacks' offense, completing 67.2% of his passes for 1,428 yards, 14 touchdowns, and three interceptions, adding 238 rushing yards on 35 attempts (per Pro Football Focus, which doesn't subtract sack yardage from QB rushing production).
"Yeah, he's having a great year. Really proud of him," said Florida offensive coordinator Brian Johnson, who coached Franks for two seasons prior to his transfer. "Feleipe is like family to me. I love him to death so really excited for him."
What Florida's coaching staff wants you to understand, however, is that Franks' success comes as little surprise to them, despite his up-and-down career with the Gators. Head coach Dan Mullen said as much:
"I think Feleipe's a great quarterback. We had him for quite a long time, so, I'm seeing what you see out of him. A guy that has a high touchdown-to-interception ratio, really strong arm, you know. I mean, he's a veteran player now, played in the league, so the games and moments aren't too much for him. I know he's playing kind of a newer offense to learn, but when you're an older, veteran guy, I think you understand concepts, you understand coverages, you understand what's going on out there on the field. He's picked it up really fast, and I think he's having a great year. But I wouldn't have expected anything less than that from him, and, you know, the Feleipe I know."
Franks' UF career had memorable moments such as the "Heave to Cleve" in 2017, the 79-yard run against Texas A&M that same year, shushing the home crowd with a solid performance following a benching, and finally seeming to put things together under Mullen over his final seven games as a Gator.
In that stretch, Franks completed 69.6% of his throws for 1,560 yards, 13 touchdowns, and three picks, also rushing for 285 yards and five scores (PFF). The injury was a momentum killer, but it's safe to say that Franks' development under Mullen and Co. took his career to the next level and set him up well to lead Arkansas to new heights under Pittman.
Trask even credits Franks' presence for helping make Trask a better quarterback, and vice versa.
“I think we had a very beneficial relationship while we were both playing here because we were great friends off the field," shared Trask, "but at the same time, we were both competitors, and we competed with each other every day, and I think we made each other better in the end.”
It's tough, but now, Florida must view Franks as the enemy - at least for the week and through Saturday. There's no ill-will, and both players and coaches are certain to chat it up with their old friend and teammate pre-and-post-game.
However, Franks and the Razorbacks pose a tall task for a Florida team with SEC Championship and College Football Playoff aspirations, and that can't be forgotten in the fun. This is a matchup between two respectable opponents first, reunion second.
"I know I was pumped up [to add Arkansas to the schedule]. As competitors, we are, even when he was here, we always compete with each other," recalled Davis. "We'll argue all day about who is winning sprints, and so when we found out we get to play each other, it's, you know, trash-talking and, he knows we're beefing this week until after the game."