Q: With Franklin, was it just the injuries last year or did he just not play well even when he was healthy?
A: Well, what happens is, when you don’t play well, you don’t practice or your practice isn’t very good. You’re hurt. There’s a lot of things that goes with, "Well, he’s back for a game. He should be 100 percent, be perfect." There were certainly a lot of carryover things. There’s things about not transferring his weight in practice, so he goes down to Florida and the ball just sails on him, just gets away from him because he is compensating for it in practice, throwing off his back foot, not transferring his weight.
There’s a lot of things you look at, but I’ve coached the position for a long time, and I’ve never had a quarterback get beat up like he did. Tears his labrum, comes back, reinjures his shoulder in that joint, has strained ligaments in his knee and can’t play a couple weeks, has a concussion that keeps him out. I’ve never seen anything like it. In 34 or 35 years coaching college football, never even came close to seeing anything like it. To say you can evaluate his performance, we’re not going to evaluate his performance as a player. He didn’t play as well, but he was also hurt and missed half the season.
Four separate injuries sidelined Franklin for parts or all of six games last fall. But Franklin knew the coaches opened the competition to sophomore Corbin Berkstresser and redshirt freshman Maty Mauk for reasons beyond his injuries.
"When I was playing, I wasn't performing well," Franklin said yesterday.
The senior quarterback, affable as always, said he doesn't mind having to compete for his old job after struggling through last year's 5-7 season.
"It's definitely a challenge, and it helps that I have so much motivation from last season," he said after splitting reps with Berkstresser and Mauk in the team's first spring practice. "Not saying it's good that we lost so many games, but it definitely gives me some intrinsic motivation to do well."
In his time off following the season, Franklin decided to get his head right. He began to read more on the topics of "leadership and spirituality," focusing on his attitude for his final season in Columbia.
"No matter what, you can always choose to have a positive attitude, and how effective that can be," Franklin said. "I know I didn't do a good job at that last season. I've really done a lot of studying up and reading and taking into account that no matter what happens, being positive is always going to be a better outcome."
He also readied himself for the inevitable -- an open competition at quarterback, with Corbin Berkstresser and Maty Mauk as his main challengers. Franklin understood that course of action would be necessary, and a January meeting with head coach Gary Pinkel confirmed that reality.
It's a competition that will play out largely without the prying eyes of the media, as new restrictions limit access to team drills during practice. It's a spring of firsts, with the limited access to practices and also the first real quarterback battle involving an established senior in Pinkel's tenure.
But first, as Franklin has prepared to compete for the Tigers' starting job this spring, he's discovered an appreciation for Missouri point guard Phil Pressey, another high-profile MU athlete under heavy scrutiny these days. The day after Missouri's Feb. 23 overtime loss at Kentucky — one of several road collapses by the Tigers — Franklin took to Twitter to stick up for his fellow passer: "So much for One-Mizzou: if a family member messes up, you should positively support them, not make them feel awful! Keep your head up Phil"
I asked Franklin after Tuesday's practice what prompted him to send Pressey the public pat on the back.
"I feel like I kind of know what he feels like," Franklin said. "Although they are team sports and it's not won by an individual. You could say, 'Laurence Bowers could have done this or ' " Earnest " ' Ross could have done that.' So I kind of know what it's like to be in his shoes. Everyone plays a key role, but when it comes down to crunch time, they trust him to have the ball in his hands. Whenever he'd miss a shot or have a turnover – some of the other guys missed shots or had turnovers earlier in the game — but because of the time and how much pressure was put on that situation it made it seem a whole lot worse than it was. I just wanted him to know and everyone to know and remind them that it's a team sport. Although one guy made a mistake at a key point he didn't lose a game. … He might feel like it's his fault, but it's a team sport. And I was trying to give him some positive re-encouragement."
Two years ago, James Franklin entered Mizzou's spring football practices embroiled in a quarterback battle that a lot people thought he was going to lose. Used in a Wild Tiger type of formation a bit during Missouri's 10-3 campaign in 2010, Franklin had to go toe-to-toe with Tyler Gabbert to win the starting job. And he did. And now, he's going through something similar. Following a nasty season that saw him both get hurt repeatedly and get destroyed by Missouri fans, he is healthy and ready to battle it out with Corbin Berkstresser and Maty Mauk for the right to start in his senior season.
Franklin is an incredibly affable, painfully respectful guy. He calls everybody "sir" (or "ma'am," I guess), he smiles more than a rational human being should, and it is easy to enjoy the thought of him representing your football program. And in 2012, he was beset with Kirk Farmer-esque injury luck; you can count his healthy quarters on two hands -- the SE Louisiana game, a couple of quarters in the Georgia game, a couple of drives in the Vanderbilt game, the first 2-3 quarters in the Syracuse game. He was mostly awful last season, but of course he was. He never had a chance.
The missed opportunities didn't help. Franklin was personally victimized by Georgia's Jarvis Jones twice in the fourth quarter; Jones picked him off, then sacked and stripped him, and the resulting turnovers turned a 27-20 game into a 41-20 game. And against Florida, offensive coordinator David Yost's most well-called game of the season, Franklin's footwork was altered by a wonky knee, and he missed a host of (surprisingly) open receivers in a seven-point loss. He rebounded against Tennessee; he was moving like an old man, but he led a second-half comeback and brilliant overtime win regardless. It looked like the season had turned around until a fourth injury, a concussion, knocked him out in the final stages of the Syracuse game. (Berkstresser entered that game and played perfectly well, of course; it was the defense that ended up losing that game for Missouri.)
Heading into 2013, Franklin gets one last opportunity to prove himself. Fans and writers alike seem to assume Maty Mauk will overtake him for the starting job at this point, and who knows, maybe he will. But most seem to be basing that assumption not on Mauk's talents (which few have actually seen) but on the simple fact that he's not James Franklin or Corbin Berkstresser. It is a trap that has snared people since football began: the quarterback you haven't seen must be better than the one you have.
Make no mistake: If Mauk wins the job, it will be because he's a pretty damn good quarterback. That's what it will take to beat out a healthy James Franklin. For this reason, I almost hope Mauk wins the job. It would mean pretty damn good things for the football team as a whole. But in the end, I expect Franklin to hold off his challengers, and I expect him to play reasonably well in 2013. I don't know what his ceiling is in the SEC, but I know that if he stays healthy and once again hints at the potential he showed in 2011, when he was a solid runner, steady leader and accurate passer (who, yes, let mistakes get the best of him at times), I'll feel pretty comfortable about the MIzzou offense this fall. As long as the damn line stays healthy this time around, anyway.
(Honestly, I'm much more worried about the defense. But we'll get to that at a later date.)