Let’s talk about Feleipe Franks.
The Florida Gators quarterback walked off the field Saturday night having helped his team to a 24-20 season opening win over in-state rival, the Miami Hurricanes. He’s the first Florida quarterback since Tim Tebow that can say that and joins the Heisman winner along with Kerwin Bell as one of only three Florida quarterbacks who can make the claim in the last 10 meetings. Coincidentally, both of those two previous matchups were the opening games for seasons that included a No. 1 ranking, ending No. 6 with a bowl ban (1985) and ended in a National Championship (2008). But I digress.
After walking off the field following the win Saturday night in Orlando, Franks was met with a barrage of criticism. Everything from his play to his celebrations were being picked apart by commentators, pundits, fans (both of Florida and others) and even the casual viewer. After going on somewhat of a redemption tour the last four games of the 2018 season, the Gators passer found himself back under the microscope that wanted to magnify every slip-up, perceived or otherwise.
I hesitated to write this, tried to put it off as long as I could. It hasn’t been any secret that I’ve defended Franks often in the past, from his time as a redshirt freshman to this past weekend. There was a worry that if I did so again here, it wouldn’t be taken seriously. I ultimately decided though that I have platform and a glimpse into the subject matter that warranted a response.
There has been a perception from some that this is a media driven story; that Gators beat writers made a mountain out of a molehill and made sweeping assumptions. A quick perusal of Twitter and message boards prove otherwise. While that isn’t an accurate representation of the entire fan base, it is a decent sample size and often indicative of a narrative that exists throughout the fanbase on some level. To ignore it would be just as irresponsible as making up a story that didn’t really exist.
See, as media members, we are taught from the beginning to be unbiased, neutral and focused. This can be tough in today’s age when social media gives a megaphone to anyone that wants to create a following and call themselves media as well. It seems at times that we have to speak on that level just to keep up in the rat race. But alas, we must strive to be that unbiased voice that reports the facts, presents the information and—when it comes to the fun parts—help the guys tell their stories. It’s the latter that makes weeks like this interesting.
When someone shares their story with you, it creates a bond that isn’t found in other relationships. It might not be a friendship or something of that kind, but there’s a trust that exists when a person opens up to you about areas of their life that might have been private, or feelings they would normally hide. And when that happens, you feel somewhat responsible for how others view them. That’s been the case with Feleipe Franks this week.
See, again, as media members, we are cognizant of remaining neutral as much as possible. But part of our job requires being around the team, the coaches, the players, and learning the nuances of their personalities. It’s why on weeks like this we get to use that magical word “column” and take a moment to say “here’s my opinion, created from a front row look at the situation.”
That being said, I feel some of the criticism of Franks this week has been undue, some unfounded and some possibly justified (more on that below). Let’s walk through it all.
On Saturday night, Franks was the center of three plays that resulted in turnovers. On Tuesday night following the game, he was candid and self-aware when discussing each one.
The first, a fumble between he and running back Lamical Perine in the redzone, was what Franks explained as a miscommunication on a RPO.
“I was trying to throw it to [Tre] Grimes. I tried to pull it, it just go mixed up. [Perine] thought I was giving it. I was trying to pull it. Things we do every day. Just clean up. The percentage of that happening again in the season is very low.”
His first interception was a pass intended for Freddie Swain. Instead it was tipped by Swain and landed in the waiting hands of a Miami defender. Franks explained that the route should have been a bit “flatter” but the space between Swain and Tyrie Cleveland didn’t allow it to be ran as intended. He wasn’t throwing Swain under the bus with the explanation, and even admitted that whether Swain or Cleveland was the intended target, it was a bad ball on his part either way. But he feels making sure that route is crisper by everyone involved next time will result in a better outcome.
The second interception came in a crucial time, with less than five minutes to go in the game and with only a four point lead. The quarterback explained—and tape seems to back him up—that a Canes player was on his back, beginning to push into him and effecting his throwing arm as he tried to throw the ball away instead of taking the sack.
“I tried to get it out, but at the end of the day there wasn’t even a route right there. So I didn’t throw it to him or didn’t throw it short. I just couldn’t get enough on it to get it out of bounds. I tried to make a smarter decision right there, but couldn’t get enough on it.”
His head coach, Dan Mullen, took blame for the play as well.
“I don’t know if a great call or not in that situation. So much gets made about it – that he’s getting pressure, looking to throw the ball away. Obviously, a great call by [Miami head coach] Manny [Diaz], if you talk about maybe knowing personalities. (Diaz worked for Mullen twice at Mississippi State).
“We get the ball. We felt we set them up for this play. We felt that they were going to be ready to stop the run because we’re going to try to run out the clock. We’re going to hit them with this play-action pass, guy’s going to be wide open and we hit an explosive play. If that happens – what’s really funny, if you flip Feleipe’s stats: 18 of 26 for 320 yards passing, three touchdowns and a pick and he has all the answers. ‘What an unbelievable game. Look at his development through the offseason. Unbelievable.’
“Probably should have taken a sack there. Boy, that’s real hard to teach. That’s really hard to teach, guys to take sacks. He was trying to throw it away and he doesn’t get enough on it and it gets picked. Maybe not a great call by me. All the combinations in that one call.”
His actual stat line looked pretty good for facing one of the nation’s top defenses; 17-27 for 254 yards (63 QBR), two touchdowns with eight more yards and another touchdown on the ground. It’s what’s to be expected of the UF quarterback with the best statistics since Tim Tebow’s 2009 season. The fumble and the interceptions bog down it down and are never excusable, but as Franks and Mullen explained, are all things that can be adjusted.
It’s the celebrations that really got people talking though, and where things began to get a little ridiculous from a criticism point of view.
After the go-ahead touchdown run, Franks ran to the edge of the end zone and mean mugged the camera, crossing his arms and adopting a hero’s pose. His teammates quickly followed and flanked him, although the television cameras cut away before that became apparent to those at home.
After the touchdown, an ESPN behind the scenes camera followed the signal caller down the sidelines into the Gators bench area. Franks looked into the camera and declared “this is what I do. Don’t play with me.”
Another time while celebrating with some Florida fans, he appeared to jaw back at some Miami fans.
And at games end, the former punter put his skills to use and sent the ball sailing into the stands.
None of these moments are frankly surprising (pun intended) when it comes to Feleipe Franks and his personality, and furthermore, none of them are particularly concerning.
The first celebration has been something Franks and other teammates have done several times after touchdowns. It’s a moment to say “we know we’re good.” Yelling into the camera, jawing at Miami fans, even punting the ball into the stands, they came during an intense game; one where Franks had to reach down for the fire that we saw him use to light up teams at the end of last season.
Rivalry games—for that matter college football—aren’t supposed to be nice. They aren’t supposed to be handing the ball to the official and thanking him for the opportunity. They aren’t supposed to be about ignoring the opposing fans. Rivalry games are fueled by years of hatred and are a small period of time where actions can be taken on years of animosity. Amy Vanderbilt’s Rules of Etiquette go out the window on that field. That isn’t to say sportsmanship goes out the window but that’s not a line Franks crossed.
You can choose not to like the celebrations or the antics. That’s perfectly fine and a valid opinion. But the pearl clutching, like it’s never happened before or was an out of line moment is a bit sanctimonious.
Let us remember, the time LSU students got Tim Tebow’s phone number and called him all week leading up to the 2007 game. After the first touchdown, Tebow went to the student section and mined calling them on an imaginary phone. The Gators lost the game 28-24 but Tebow said of the moment, ”They were having fun with me, so I was having fun with them,
too. It’s what college football is all about. It’s just fun, and I had fun with it. I know it probably got under their skin a little bit."
Or the time Baker Mayfield yelled at opposing fans from his team bench that he was going to make their day miserable, or the time he taunted opposing teams in pregame or any other number of times he did any number of Baker Mayfield things. Or the time he planted an Oklahoma flag in the middle of Ohio State’s field.
“Things like [that], in the moment, emotionally, I'm just being me,” Mayfield recently told GQ.
“I worked so hard to beat them after they beat us at home the year before that I was so excited and overcome with emotion that one thing led to another. But a lot of Ohio people didn't like me after that one.”
It sounds familiar to what Franks said when trying to explain his celebrations in the middle of an emotionally charged rivalry game.
“I’m myself, I’m my own person. At the end of the day, that’s what makes me who I am. People inside this building know who I am, know what kind of person I am. Humble. Try to be the best teammate I can be, always put the team first. I’m a passionate player. I love to win. Winning is my No. 1 goal and we won, we got the job done. We won.”
He’s right. They won, and they did it on Saturday with a hell of a defensive line performance and three touchdowns that Feleipe Franks was partly if not wholly responsible for (the box score gives him the pass on Kadarius Toney’s touchdown, but even Feleipe can admit that one was pretty much all K.T.). And they did it behind their quarterback and their leader.
I can hear you saying through the computer, “they were Heisman winners. Feleipe Franks is not” and you’re right but just to play devil’s advocate, neither one had won the trophy at the time of the aforementioned actions.
“I love the celebrations, it makes him who he is,” admits wide receiver Tre Grimes.
"If everybody seen him on the field, off the field, in the house, like, I see him, you'll know. He means no harm. It's just who he is and what he loves to do. He's passionate about the game, so I love his celebrations. One of my favorite ones personally is his famous shush the crowd one. I love that because people don’t understand, he goes through so much stuff. He goes through so much criticism and he still has to go out there and play in front of 80,000 fans. So, it’s a lot of pressure and when he shows that he can do what everyone things he can’t, it’s a pride filling presence. It’s just like ‘That’s my quarterback’ and I get to, I get to brag about that. So, I like his celebrations, and I look forward to them every game.”
Practices may not be open to media much and we get a limited amount of time in interviews. But the glimpses are enough. The amount of respect Franks has earned from his teammates is palpable. There was a time Dominique Easley admitted to reporters that he couldn’t remember his quarterbacks name (granted they were going through several at the time) and now Franks has formed a relationship with every player on his roster. They’d crawl into a foxhole with him because they knows he’d do the same for them.
For what it’s worth, for every fan or pundit that has criticized Franks, there have been two more who have shown support. It’s the teeter-totter of a fan base, especially one as large as the Gators boast.
It also shows that the Gators, and subsequently Feleipe Franks, were a victim of their own spotlight. Being the only game on (ok Arizona played Hawaii later that night) during a Week 0 means there’s little else to discuss college football wise this week. There’s hours of content to fill and a limited amount of subjects. Had this happened say Week 4, it would have most likely been a story on Twitter for up to one hour after the game and then disappeared.
“What makes college football great, I mean, it’s good for all of us,” says Mullen.
“Listen, if there weren’t that many opinions out there, people wouldn’t care and college football wouldn’t be that important. But everybody wants to talk about it.”
He’s right, there are opinions galore and it’s all we’ve wanted to talk about. But the rest of the college football world joins the fray soon. So let’s close the book on this discussion. It’s time to move on and talk about the next game. Feleipe Franks gets a week off and then a chance to show again why he’s the guy Dan Mullen believes can lead this program back to prominence.