The Sunday Evening Quarterback: December 1, 2019

The scene in the South End Zone after Florida’s 40-17 win over Florida State was one of celebration that would last well into the wee hours of Sunday morning for victorious Gators who finished out the regular season at 10-2. Whether one-by-one or in small groups, players trickled toward the locker room, taking a moment to nod or wave at UF president Kent Fuchs and wife Linda who stood under the goal posts. When Feleipe Franks made his way to the locker room, joy was absent from his face, however. Wearing a walking boot on his right foot, blue jeans and his #13 jersey, Franks hobbled into the locker room wearing a somber look on his face. The perpetual smile was gone, perhaps because he knew this was his farewell moment in The Swamp.

Not exactly how he planned it. Not exactly how any of us thought it would be when the 2019 football season began back in August. This was supposed to be the year when Feleipe Franks built on that fast finish to 2018 and led the Gators to a second straight season of 10 or more wins. This was supposed to be the year when arm strength, athleticism and unquestioned desire all came together and the inconsistencies of the past became a distant memory. This was supposed to be the year in which Feleipe Franks went from NFL suspect to top NFL prospect.

Supposed to be.

The injury at Kentucky was horrific in nature – a dislocated and fractured ankle, the type from which recovery is often slow and quite painful. It ended the season for Franks, opening the door for Kyle Trask to put some modern football touches on a Cinderella story. As the Florida offense flourished with Trask in charge and one of the truly feel good stories of college stories took on monstrous proportions, it must have seemed to Franks that the handwriting of his own future was on the wall in big, bold letters.

And so when Franks announced Sunday that he’s departing, investigating his NFL as well as transfer options, we really shouldn’t have been surprised. He faces more months of rehab, enough that Dan Mullen announced at his press conference last Monday that he wasn’t sure that Franks would be fit enough to go through spring practice.

As Franks watched from the sideline Saturday night as Trask and backup Emory Jones lit up the Seminoles, the unlikelihood that he could get back into a good enough groove to supplant Trask and Jones in the spring had to be painfully clear. While he has no clue when he’ll be healthy enough to play again at a high level, Trask and Jones aren’t going anywhere. Trask turned beet red when asked if he planned to go the NFL last Monday. His response to the question was, “I don’t plan on leaving.” And why should he? And why should Jones think about going elsewhere. The way Mullen integrated the offense with Trask and Jones Saturday night it was an indicator of where the offense is heading in the future.

Franks spent the entire spring and summer leading up to this season cultivating his place as the ultimate team leader. He was the first one to practice and the last one to leave. He organized players-only workouts after spring practice and into the summer. He did what a leader is supposed to do and made the Florida Gators HIS team. All that changed with the injury and starting with the miracle comeback win at Kentucky through the FSU win Saturday night, the Gators moved on from Franks and evolved into Trask’s team. With so much uncertainty about his own future, Franks probably saw leaving as his best option. Chances are, he knew that well before Saturday night’s game with FSU.

Can you blame him? I think not. He could declare for the draft. There is that chance some NFL team will take a chance on him based on what they saw the last four games of 2018 and throws like that laser beam 65-yard connection to Josh Hammond in the Miami game back in August or the 69-yarder to Van Jefferson in the game with UT-Martin. Franks completed 25-27 passes for 270 yards in that game with UT-Martin and he showed some really good wheels when he broke out of the pack for a 22-yard gain. He wasn’t without a few good moments in 2019, maybe enough to convince the scouts that he’s draftable. Lest we forget, Bart Starr came out of Alabama with fewer credentials than Franks has. He was drafted in the 17th round and he turned out all right. You don’t have to be a high draft pick to be successful in the NFL although it’s worth more money and more money translates into teams giving more opportunity lest they lose their investment. This is not to say that Franks will be the next Bart Starr, but he has size (6-6, 240), speed, athleticism and a very strong arm so if he does declare it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that he will be chosen in the later rounds.

The NFL is a crapshoot, however, and there are far more guarantees if Franks puts his name in the NCAA transfer portal. He won’t lack options and if he chooses wisely, he could improve his NFL chances significantly.

Wherever he goes, I hope all the coaching and lessons learned at Florida combine with all that natural talent and athleticism to give him a final year of college football to remember. He deserves that.

As for me, I’ll always remember the touchdown pass to Tyrie Cleveland on the final play of the game in 2017. That is a Gator memory for a lifetime that will never be erased from my mind and Feleipe Franks made that possible with 70-yard heave (63-yard TDP but the ball traveled 70 in the air) that turned a certain loss into a miracle victory.

Thanks Feleipe. No matter where you go, you’ll always be a Gator in my mind.

* * *

Mullen will never come right out and admit it publicly, but stomping Florida State was very much part of his game plan. In his press conference last Monday and in post game, Mullen said all the politically correct things but in his heart of hearts, he got exactly what he wanted and that was a crushing win that would indicate to the more than 500 recruits in the South End Zone that while the physical distance between Gainesville and Tallahassee is 150 miles, the football difference is approaching light years.

In Mullen’s two years on the job at Florida, the Gators are 20-5 and in all likelihood heading to their second consecutive New Year’s Six bowl. He has changed the entire football culture at UF from one filled with negativity and just getting by to one of great expectations.

“When we were 4-7, we were just … I wouldn’t say headed down the wrong road, we were just lost and confused,” is how Tyrie Cleveland explained it Saturday night. “When Coach Mullen came, he really changed the whole program and changed the whole mindset. He told us just to work hard, give relentless effort, play for each other and everything will work out.”

And work out it has. Florida is currently poised to take a dominant position among the state’s three power five schools. FSU doesn’t know who its next coach is going to be and whoever is hired will be its second new boss in three years. The Seminoles are 11-13 since the 2018 season, having missed a bowl game last year for the first time since Gerald Ford was the president and this year expecting to spend a week in scenic, exotic (and cold) Detroit for something called the Quick Lane Bowl. As for Miami, the Hurricanes were expected to be the second best team in the ACC behind Clemson this year, but they’re 6-6 with losses to Georgia Tech, Florida International and Duke dotting that not so glamorous resume. Miami’s bowl destination is expected to be Shreveport, not exactly a hotspot for folks planning a vacation. Rumor has it that if you lose the Independence Bowl you’re required to spend an extra week in Shreveport.

While Mullen has significantly advanced the Florida brand in his two seasons on the job, both Florida State and Miami have turned into raging dumpster fires. When he took the job at UF in December of 2017, Mullen couldn’t have possibly foreseen the boost he was going to get from his two big in-state rivals. He has a unique opportunity to put FSU and Miami in a permanent state of catch-up. He’s well ahead of both FSU and Miami with the 2020 recruiting class and that gap should grow significantly between now and the early signing date in three weeks. A bowl win – the Gators are projected to go to either the Cotton Bowl to face the Group of Five top team or to the Orange Bowl to face Virginia – will only add to the recruiting advantage.

* * *

Mullen offered up words of thanks to his seniors at the post game press conference Saturday night.

“It’s really special to me,” he said. “When you come in and you say, ‘We didn’t recruit you, but this is how we’re going to run the program and this is what we believe in, this is how the program’s going to be run in the future’ and those guys believed and bought in. And I thanked all of them, every single one of them, I thanked them and I said, thanks for believing in me. They played hard for the Gators, but they came here to be Gators you know, but then they also believed in me and bought into what me and the coaching staff are trying to build here, what we’re trying to do and how we run our program. So I’m very thankful for them to believe in me and it’s a great honor for guys to do that.”

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