GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Maybe Florida quarterback Feleipe Franks didn’t like the question, or the implication of the question, as he was asked Saturday whether he felt any hurt losing the starting job earlier this week.
Or maybe it was just an interesting choice of words.
“I don’t think there was really any kind of an emotional breakdown,” Franks said. “But definitely the guys kept me up, kept me staying myself, preparing like I’m the starter and Luke did a great job of helping me. Even though it is one play away, you never really want it to be that way. It was a great job by them just keeping my confidence up.”
Indeed, one play Saturday reset the team’s plans for a change at quarterback as veteran Luke Del Rio sustained a season-ending injury to his left collarbone late in the second quarter of the No. 21 Gators’ 38-24 win over Vanderbilt.
As if that demotion never happened, Franks entered the game in the final minute of the first half and promptly threw a beautiful 49-yard pass to Tyrie Cleveland to set up a momentum-building, game-tying field goal.
Overall, he finished 10-of-14 passing for 185 yards, 0 touchdowns and 0 interceptions while playing a key role in two of the Gators’ second-half touchdown drives as well.
“Feleipe came in, took care of business. Thought he handled it well,” Florida coach Jim McElwain said.
And how he needs to build on it.
The reasons Del Rio had taken over the job, however briefly, were because of the presence he brought at the line of scrimmage, the poise that stemmed from his thorough command of the playbook and ability to make pre-snap reads and really run the offense. Those were considered the shortcomings for Franks, a redshirt freshman getting his first taste of college football this fall.
He didn’t look totally ready in his first three starts, getting pulled in the third quarter of two of them when the offense bogged down and just couldn’t seem to get going.
He was ready when his second chance came Saturday, though.
“First off, I think Luke came out starting each drive, he had tempo and he had a lot of things that veterans have. (He) came out there and had a kick-start and he’s moving the field. When he went down the guys just came up to me, we wanted to keep that going, keep the tempo going, keep the drives going, keep converting on third downs,” Franks said.
For the most part, they did.
Franks diverted credit to his offensive line, which played the best it has all season, and to Florida’s running backs, who combined for 218 rushing yards and 5 touchdowns. That is what won the Gators this game, no doubt.
But Franks did his part.
His two passes to tight end Moral Stephens accounted for 45 of Florida’s 73 yards on its go-ahead touchdown drive midway through the third quarter. His 18-yard strike to Cleveland on third-and-13 later extended the Gators’ second touchdown drive of the second half, and he got some fortuitous help when his downfield pass to Freddie Swain near the end of that drive was tipped by a defender and not intercepted, instead bouncing into the receiver’s hands for a 33-yard gain to the Vanderbilt 2.
Everybody needs a little luck now and then.
But it was that 49-yard bomb to Cleveland at the end of the first half that gave a reassuring lift to the team after Del Rio’s injury. It had to be a confidence boost for Franks in particular, for that matter, to make an immediate statement in his first opportunity a week after being benched.
That was the biggest takeaway Saturday, as it pertains to the Gators’ ever-revolving quarterback situation.
Franks was able to build some confidence, as well as earn some confidence from his teammates.
“He played pretty good, man. He came in with intensity. He was doing good with all the snap counts,” Stephens said.
Said running back Lamical Perine: “He did a good job. He didn’t shake up at all. I’m liking his confidence. He’s doing real good with that. He just has to keep his composure.”
Franks wasn’t perfect. He won’t be perfect this season. The issues that cost him the job after his initial three-game run as the starter are ones he must continue to work at and improve, and those flaws will probably be more magnified against better competition.
He bobbled a snap Saturday and Florida racked up back-to-back false start penalties on third-and-one (before eventually salvaging the first down). It’s not clear watching live what if any culpability Franks had on those, but it will be on him moving forward now to make sure the offense eliminates the self-inflicted mistakes that have been present through the early part of the season.
McElwain, meanwhile, harkened back to the flow and tempo.
“I thought maybe there were two series that, you know, the substitution, the personnel, you know the flow … I didn’t think were great,” he said. “And yet, I think we got a lot better at it. But part of that was not on him. The guys were going and getting lined up, they were listening, they had some energy, they had some attention to detail, and they weren’t just waiting for him. Look, the other 10 have to go push that envelope, and we’ve got to continue to do that.”
McElwain has given no indication that graduate transfer Malik Zaire is a threat to Franks’ job at this point, but everything with this Florida team feels tenuous. It’s just been that kind of season.
So this is Franks’ chance to prove himself. Well, his second chance.
And going back to the earlier point, the potential for this Gators offense moving forward will rise or fall on a parallel arc to the confidence of its young quarterback as long as he remains the guy.
Much like Franks was asked how he handled the setback of losing the job for what proved to only be a week, McElwain was asked if he was at all concerned about the impact of yanking his young QB out of two of the first three games.
“No. Only because I know how important it is to him and I know how driven he is to be great and, you know, (how he) also understood,” McElwain said. “I think what it does show you more than anything is not only how much he cares about his teammates, but his teammates care about him. And kind of going into it, that probably had a lot to do with him winning the job from the standpoint of being there all the way through spring, what he did through camp and the summer. And those things are going to pay dividends in the end.”
That’s what the Gators have to hope now.
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