HOOVER, Ala. — To use a suitably Southern term, you can’t swing a dead cat at Lake Oconee without hitting a football coach in July. About two dozen current and former coaches at the NFL and college levels have homes on the body of water in central Georgia, and they’ll routinely bump into each other at the marina, the bar or on the golf course.
Florida coach Dan Mullen had a nice summer at his place on the lake, showing up at Southeastern Conference media days Monday well tanned and flush with stories. He tallied his first-ever hole in one on the National Course at Reynolds Plantation, dialing in a 7-iron from 173 yards out, and he’ll show you the video of himself plucking the ball out of the cup. When he wasn’t doing that, the 47-year-old was trying to land a 360 while wake surfing.
If Mullen really wants to impress his coaching neighbors, he should try walking across Lake Oconee’s surface. His reputation as a quarterback miracle worker added another layer last year with Feleipe Franks.
Really, you could argue that the reclamation of Franks is Mullen’s best QB work yet. His other great successes as an offensive coordinator or head coach — Alex Smith at Utah, Tim Tebow at Florida, Dak Prescott at Mississippi State — were players who had never previously endured vivid, high-profile failure. Smith and Prescott were unknown quantities who thrived under Mullen; Tebow arrived in Gainesville as a big deal and morphed into a folk hero.
Franks? Different story.
He was the piñata of The Swamp in 2017, the focus of fan frustration in a 4-7 debacle of a season. Franks was highly touted, physically gifted and expected by many to be the next great Gator QB — and they have had a few, as the statues outside Florida Field of Heisman Trophy winners Steve Spurrier, Danny Wuerffel and Tebow will attest. Instead, his redshirt freshman season was one shining moment (a Hail Mary to beat Tennessee) buried beneath an avalanche of errors.
There may have been a player who spawned more Surrender Cobra dismay in 2017 among his team’s fans than Feleipe Franks, but I’m not sure who it would be. Franks was 99th nationally in pass efficiency (a 113.31 rating), 96th in accuracy (54.6 percent) and 93rd in yards per attempt (6.3). He was occasionally benched and routinely booed, a 6-foot-6 stud with a cannon arm who looked overwhelmed.
“If you don’t have confidence at quarterback, you’re going to fall down in a hole,” Franks said Monday. “… I was pretty far down. I just kept wondering, ‘When is the production going to start coming? When is the production going to meet the work ethic?’
“It humbles you, for sure.”
Meanwhile, Franks was suffering by comparison to some other precocious SEC quarterbacks. True freshman Jake Fromm was leading Georgia to the College Football Playoff championship game against sophomore Jalen Hurts of Alabama. Then the Bulldogs were taken down by the heroics of freshman Tua Tagovailoa. Jake Bentley, a sophomore at South Carolina who actually skipped his senior year of high school, put up better numbers than Franks on the season.
That season led to the departure of coach Jim McElwain, and many assumed it would also lead Franks to the bench (or the transfer portal) after Mullen’s arrival.
But Mullen stuck with Franks as his starter through an uneven first eight games of 2018, then benched his redshirt sophomore during a blowout loss to Missouri. Backup Kyle Trask performed adequately in relief, and Mullen let speculation about a shakeup percolate.
"We'll see how they perform this week," he said after the game. "If there's a drastic change, we'll make a change. If not, we'll play with who's going to give us the best chance to win."
Trask broke his foot the following week in practice, and Franks remained the starter. Mullen insisted Monday that he was always sticking with Franks. Whether aided by injury or with the full backing of his coach, the Feleipe Franks who started the final four games of the season was a different guy.
After spending his Florida career largely reticent to leave the pocket, Franks bought into the dual-threat element Mullen has always espoused. Athleticism was never a problem — there’s a reason why the Boston Red Sox drafted him in the 31st round last month. But he didn’t want to be a runner.
“The guy didn’t have a great understanding of the game, of how to utilize his skills,” Mullen said. “I think he had kind of a stereotypical thought of what he’s supposed to be as a quarterback. ‘I’m not a dual-threat guy, I’m a pro-style quarterback.’
“I don’t need you to be a dynamic rusher to be successful. But don’t be stubborn. If that’s there, don’t be afraid to take it.”
Franks finally started to take it. He ran a career-high 16 times in leading a comeback win over South Carolina, 12 more against Florida State and 14 times for a career-high 74 yards in a rout of Michigan in the Peach Bowl. A guy who averaged 1.6 yards per carry in his first 20 games as a Gator averaged 4 per carry and scored four touchdowns in the last four games.
“He made big plays running the ball that changed the last two games,” Mullen said. “When there’s no one there, run up the middle for a 20-yard touchdown and you can jump up and shush the crowd and have fun, like you have all the answers.”
After being bombarded by questions, it was nice to have all the answers again like he did in high school.
At the same time, Franks’ pass efficiency took a corresponding leap at the end of 2018. Franks threw eight touchdown passes and zero interceptions in the last four games, completing 65 percent of his throws. By the time the season was over, Franks’ efficiency rating for the year was up 30 points over 2017.
“Playing quarterback at Florida is such a hard deal,” Mullen said, “because of the expectations that come with the position. He really should just be coming into his own right now. I know everyone wants to accelerate all these things in the world, but to me, developing as a quarterback takes quite a long period of time.”
For Feleipe Franks, the development began when Dan Mullen arrived and accelerated as the 2018 season progressed. If he takes another major stride forward in 2019, it could affect the balance of power in the SEC East and perhaps the entire nation. And it would be the latest Mullen miracle work at the quarterback position.
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