Hoover, Ala.—To play quarterback at the University of Florida is to live with a daily dose of intimidation.
“There are three statues in front of the stadium,” said Dan Mullen, the head coach of the Gators. “Playing quarterback at Florida is a hard deal because of the expectations.”
The statues are of Florida’s Heisman Trophy winners—Steve Spurrier (1966), Danny Wuerffel (1996), and Tim Tebow (2007). That’s the gold standard by which all future quarterbacks are judged.
And how tough is that standard?
According to the Tampa Bay Times, Florida has signed 16 quarterbacks since Tebow left after the 2009 season. Eleven of those have transferred.
According to the Florida Sun-Sentinel, only once since Tebow has Florida brought a quarterback (Jeff Driskell, 2014) to SEC Media Days.
That all changed on Monday when redshirt junior Feliepe Franks, a huge man at 6-6, 245, was one of three Gators to make the trip from Gainesville, Fla.
And the media who talked to Franks found a man who, after many trials and self-doubts while trying to live up to The Standard, is finally comfortable in his own skin.
“It starts with having confidence,” said Franks. “If you don’t have confidence as a quarterback you’re going to fall down in a hole.”
By his own admission, Franks was in a very deep hole as a redshirt freshman in 2017 when he thrust into the position before he was even close to being ready. Florida went 4-7 and Jim McElwain was let go as head coach in late October. A lot of Gators blamed Franks.
“I was pretty far down,” said Franks. “Not confidence-wise but I was wondering when the production was going to match my work ethic.”
Enter Dan Mullen, the quarterback whisperer, with an impressive list of students that includes Alex Smith (Utah), Josh Harris (Bowling Green), Chris Leak (Florida), Tebow, and Dak Prescott (Mississippi State).
So what did Mullen see when he saw Franks for the first time?
“He was big, athletic, with a big arm,” said Mullen. “But he didn’t have a great understanding of the game. He had a stereotypical idea of what he was supposed to be as a quarterback.”
Young quarterbacks, said Mullen, tend to want to classify themselves as a “pro-style passer” because they are convinced that is their ticket to the NFL.
“He said ‘I’m not a dual threat I’m pro style,’” said Mullen. “I said ‘You’re 6-6, 245. Use that to your advantage.’ Even Tom Brady gets a touchdown run every now and then.”
It took some time and some education but eventually Franks became comfortable using all of the tools in his tool box, which included a pair of powerful legs.
In the Chick-fil-Peach Bowl blowout of Michigan, Franks had runs of 30 and 15 yards to set up a touchdown run of 20 yards.
When the season was over Franks had 2,457 yards passing, 350 yards rushing, and the Gators finished with a record of 10-3. In the process Franks had become the unquestioned leader of this team.
“It has really been a joy watching him improve every day,” said running back Lamical Perine. “There were some very tough times but he found a way to fight through them. He has the respect of our team.”
Among the toughest moments came on Nov. 3 when Missouri and Drew Lock torched the Gators 38-17 in The Swamp. Mullen pulled Franks from the game and, according to published reports, the crowd cheered. Backup Kyle Trask led the team on a 75-yard touchdown drive fueling speculation that Franks’s job was in jeopardy.
But Mullen indicated then and he insisted on Monday in Hoover that Franks was always going to start the next game against South Carolina. It became a moot point when Trask broke his foot in practice on the Wednesday before the game.
That game with South Carolina provided the definitive moment in Franks’s career. Down 17 points, which brought out some more boos, Franks led a Florida comeback and scored the go-ahead touchdown with about four minutes remaining. On both of his touchdown runs he put his index finger to his lips, thus “shushing” the crowd.
Florida won 35-31 starting a four-game winning streak to close out the season.
And now Franks can’t wait to take the next step, starting with an Aug. 24 game with Miami in Orlando.
“I went from being one of the most not-liked quarterbacks and the next thing you know I’m a pretty good quarterback,” Franks said with a wry smile.
“But it’s part of my story. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”