Where to start with Feleipe Franks?
How to tell a story that everyone knows yet no one really knows?
What words does a person use to inevitably fail at describing the indescribable emotions which will arise in the quarterback and the former teammates but forever brothers when both face off on Saturday night?
Let’s start with simple facts.
The No. 6 Florida Gators (4-1) will play the Arkansas Razorbacks (3-3) on Saturday night in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
The Gators are led by the quarterback who is quickly becoming a Heisman favorite, Kyle Trask.
The Razorbacks are led by the quarterback who played for the Gators from 2017-2019, Feleipe Franks.
Florida has faced former quarterbacks before. Brock Berlin transferred from the University of Florida to the University of Miami at the turn of the century. In his first action as a Hurricane in 2003, he faced his former team and led the Canes to a come-from-behind 38-33 win.
There will be a difference on Saturday though, beyond just nearly 20 years and the fact that Franks didn’t go to a bitter rival.
Brock Berlin played a team that had only used him sparingly behind Rex Grossman.
Feleipe Franks is returning to a team he shaped, a locker room he built and a culture he created.
When Dan Mullen and staff first arrived in Gainesville, they set up individual meetings with each player.
Running back Malik Davis, a sophomore at the time, was leaving the office after his time with Mullen, when he passed Franks.
"I was coming down, I just finished my meeting with coach Mullen, and Feleipe came, and he had a suit on,” recalled Davis earlier this week.
“I was like 'Why you got a suit on?' He's like, 'I'm going on a business meeting,' and he was just next with his meeting with Coach Mullen. That was just the type of guy he was, always ready, competitor, great love for the game.”
Every player, on some level, is a competitor. It’d be pointless to play if not. But when Mullen arrived, he inherited a team that had forgotten what it felt like to win, much less even try. They had pulled out enough games to make some trips to Atlanta. Still there was a missing aura of winning.
Dan Mullen didn’t ask for it to be adapted under his regime. He demanded it. But for it to work, he had to have some help.
As Kyle Trask continues to put up video game numbers, the question inevitably arises again and again. Why did coaches start Franks over Trask for so long?
The two both have incredible talent, albeit different strengths and weaknesses. What each can do in different ways sort of even out.
The difference when Mullen arrived was that up to that point, Trask had famously not started a game since ninth grade and frankly was still learning how to lead a team…something he has since taken on, but more on that later.
Franks always possessed the quality innately.
Mullen and his staff could yell and scream and coach hard till the Florida sky gave way to a snow storm. But unless players were willing to demand competition from one another as well, the entire coaching change would be a pointless project.
Franks demanded that competition from one other.
During an early morning spring practice, early in the Mullen reign, players were making the short shuffle from the locker room, up the stairs on the south side of the stadium and across Gale Lemerand Drive to the practice facility.
Feleipe, like every day, was at the front of the group, the first one through the door of the indoor practice complex. This particular day, Kyle Trask and Emory Jones were near the back of the group.
As they arrived, Strength and Conditioning Coach Nick Savage made it explicitly clear to them that the quarterbacks were leaders and were never to be the last one’s to practice.
The next morning Trask and Jones came walking down the sidewalk, helmets in hand, chit-chatting as they headed towards the practice facility. Not another player was in sight. They had heeded Savage’s message and left well ahead of the rest of the team so as to set the tone for the day.
Around 50 yards from the gate, the clicking of cleats on concrete rang out behind them. It sounded like a herd. But only one blur of movement was approaching. Around 25 yards from the gate, the lanky figure passed Trask and Jones in a full sprint.
As Franks rounded the corner, he cut his eyes back through his helmet, making sure he’d overtaken the other quarterbacks and kept up his speed down the incline and into the practice facility.
He absolutely refused to be outdone in something he knew he could win. It was exactly the attitude Mullen was asking for from his team.
Every campus run before the sun, every Oklahoma drill, every practice rep, every shush of the crowd, every hard earned touchdown, every come from behind win and domination over the best defense in the country (looking at you 2018 Michigan) all came from the top. And it filtered through Feleipe.
During a fall camp before the 2019 season, Franks—in a red non-contact jersey—pulled the snap for a keeper and lowered his shoulder on the rushing defensive end, Zach Carter. The 6-6, 240lb quarterback—who technically wasn’t allowed to be hit back, remember—had the advantage in every way. He ran over Carter and trotted back to the line. Then he did it again.
On the third snap, he dropped back and Carter flew through the line and pushed him down. It wasn’t a full-blown game sack. But it was definitely more than was allowed. Franks hopped up from where he’d been put on his butt and smiled.
Reminded of the practice earlier this week, Carter smiled in much the same way.
“Oh, man,” he smirked.
“It was always fun going at it with Feleipe in practice. He was a vocal guy, so you chirp at him, he’s definitely going to chirp back. And we had a couple of altercations at practice, but it’s exciting that you’ve been going against somebody for so long but you finally have the opportunity to play them in a real game, so that will be interesting.”
Coaches didn’t chastise either guy that day at practice. They knew that when you ask for full throttled competitiveness in a team, you will have those moments dust up ever now and then.
It’s also why no matter what happens Saturday, the Gators coach will look across the field and respect what he’s trying to defeat.
Said Mullen, “Obviously it’s tough, but as competitors, I mean, we love to compete. And I know Feleipe’s a great competitor. He wants to come in here and beat my butt, beat everybody on the team’s butt, you know what I mean, and that’s what competitors want to do - and he’s a competitor, so he’s going to want to do it.
"But it’s not going to change the relationships or how you feel about each other when you’re out there on the field you get that competitive edge to you that you want to win. He’s that type of deal. I’m happy for him.”
Franks, for whatever was said or expressed or tweeted during his time in Gainesville, will be welcomed back warmly, at the very least by his former coaches and teammates.
“That's my boy man, you know it's all love with us. I actually still talk to him almost three, four times a week. That's my boy, wish him the best and I can't wait to see him,” expressed receiver Tre Grimes.
When Franks was in Gainesville, he was consistently referred to as everyone’s favorite teammate in the locker room. He made it a point to know everyone and everyone knew him.
On a roster that had been fractured and the home to intra-team fights just a year before (and not the good kind like between Franks and Carter on the field), the Crawfordville, Florida native placed himself at the center and became the heartbeat of the locker room. He did so by wearing his heart on his sleeve and intentionally loving each of his teammates.
No where was this more evident than at the Peach Bowl game night.
Traditionally three days or so before a New Year’s Six bowl game, the bowl host will put on a game night between the two teams. It allows time for the guys to relax and cut loose…and get incredibly invested in cheesy games to win a plastic Championship belt.
As the Gators raced back on Michigan’s lead, Franks began hyping up teammates from just below the stage at the College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta, Georgia. He began a one-man cheering corner, his mood eventually rubbing off on others who joined him.
As the Gators and Wolverines went to a sudden-death tie breaking round, redshirt sophomore Brett DioGuardi was the last man standing for Florida. The rules of the game fade, the question on which the Gators lost has long since become insignificant. But what remains vivid is how Franks pushed forward through his teammates as they shuffled dejected back to their seats and waited at the stairwell for DioGuardi.
As the long snapper sulked off the stage, Franks grabbed him. Congratulated him on a good effort and expressed how proud he was of the job DioGuardi had done to make it to the end.
Guys cared for Franks because he cared for them. Knowing that above all else, they began to care for each other.
“It was very hard [when he left] because he was a big part of the team,” admitted Malik Davis.
"And not just on the field—like everyone said, everyone's close to him. He was a great teammate and a great brother, you know, easy to talk to, outgoing person. So when he left it was definitely hard, but he was just making the right decision for himself."
So why did he leave?
As Davis said, Franks was making the right decision for himself. And it’s clearly paid off. In six games, he’s matched the Razorbacks touchdown total (14) from all of last season. He’s thrown for more yards (1,428) than any Arkansas quarterback did last season and is 157 yards away from passing what Ty Story did in 10 games during the 2018 season.
One could argue that from the night Franks sat in the tunnel at Kroger Field in Lexington, Kentucky watching with Megan Mullen as Kyle Trask led the Gators in a comeback win over the Kentucky Wildcats, he knew it was over.
But he’d done too much to get that team to that point to accept that just yet. He stayed, showing up to meetings and practices, leading as much as he could from crutches while recovering from his season ending leg injury.
He spent Saturday pregame’s sitting on his scooter, tossing balls to Trask so the passer could warm-up.
He stayed on the sidelines, becoming a coach and led postgame speeches and took pictures with fans as they left the stadium. He stoically accepted their well wishes and the emotions he had so often let flow, he kept at bay, not wanting to consider just yet what it would mean to say goodbye.
After the Gators defeated Florida State in the Swamp for the first time in a decade, Franks was quieter then normal. He hung back and watched his teammates celebrate and sing the alma mater, content to be a spectator that night. And he watched Kyle.
For four years, the two had been the fiercest of competitors. They took their lumps as low men on the totem pole and stuck it out through Jim McElwain’s rotating carousal of quarterbacks. They fought through a coaching change together and both did their part to help this team make a turn back towards being a winning program. It created a bond that no other relationship can mimic.
Franks reflected on the friendship with Trask for Razorback reporters this week.
“We did get along pretty well. I thought that we always competed. I mean we were there four years together, always competed. He drove me to get better and I hopefully drove him to get better. He’s playing really well, as well as their team. I’m excited to get down there and play, it’ll be my first time playing against them, which will be fun…we have a really good relationship.”
Trask did the same for media in Gainesville.
“I think we had a very beneficial relationship while we were both playing here because we were great friends off the field, 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.”
The morning after the FSU game, Franks and his mother returned to the quiet and empty stadium. They walked around and reminisced on his time there. His big plays and low moments. How he’d grown. What the place and team meant to him. That’s when he made the decision. It was time to say goodbye.
While he’s never said as much, years of studying what makes the quarterback tick leads this reporter to believe it came down to one overarching truth. He knew he could trust Kyle Trask to take care of what he’d built.
Nothing in Franks’ past or demeanor indicated he’d be afraid of competition in the offseason for the 2020 season. And there would have been a competition. No matter how well Trask played to close out the 2019 season, Franks had earned the right to fight for the job.
But he loved the locker room and he loved Kyle. Neither had anything left to prove in terms of earning the right to lead the team and he couldn’t put his friend, himself or his team through that again. They had a leader and Feleipe Franks knew he could slip away, put together tape for NFL scouts and assuredly hand over the Florida Gators to Kyle Trask.
Asked to sum up Feleipe Franks impact on the Florida Gators program, Dan Mullen paid ode to the boy who’d become a man and a cornerstone for what is now one of the top teams in the country.
"Before we got here and everything, he had a rough go of it, with the fan base, with everything going on. He came in and took a four-win team and led ‘em to a New Year’s Six bowl victory and a top-10 finish and he helped the turnaround of the program to make that happen. I think, you know, it’s a foundation of a guy that came in and took a bad situation and turned it into a really good one and helped build a foundation and put Florida back to where everyone expects Florida to be as a top-10, national program.”
Franks and the Gators will each be focused on their game plan and defeating the other on Saturday night, but as soon as the clock hits zero, Franks is likely to be mobbed, starting with Tre Grimes.
“I'm rooting for him all the time but not [this] week,” joked the receiver.
“But after the game hits zero, we come out victorious, then I'm gonna go running, give him a hug and tell him good game, keep it going.”
So much of who the Florida Gators and Feleipe Franks have become, they owe to each other. It’s why there will be a moment this weekend the redshirt senior quarterback will be able to look around at both teams—the No. 6 Gators and the Cinderella Razorbacks—and see his fingerprints on each program.
“I don’t know how to explain it,” admitted Franks this week.
"Just being the competitor I am, being able to be apart of those stories is awesome. I try to live and do my work day-by-day. Right now just being a part of this journey with this team, finishing out the season strong and to go out there and change things around here, the culture around here is important for me right this second. That’s what my main focus is on, to win games. That’s always been my focus, ever since I’ve been playing. That’s just me being the ultimate competitor. Being a part of both stories is awesome. It’s a blessing at the end of the day.”
It’s quite a legacy.