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Florida Football

Feature: From Booed and Benched to Big Wins; How Mullen & Franks are changing perceptions

December 3, 2018
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Feleipe Franks leaned over in his seat, cackling at the question, the image, the moment, all of it really.

It was a jovial mood for the Florida Gators quarterback, having just dismantled rival Florida State to the tune of 254-yards passing and three touchdowns in a 41-14 win. It was why he could laugh when recounting his thought process for “flopping”, hoping to draw a flag when a Seminole defensive player barely brushed by the passer after a play.

“I thought I was going to [get away with it] but it was kinda late and I got up smiling so it was like bad.”

When the 6-foot-6 quarterback had attempted the move even his head coach Dan Mullen was seen by TV cameras laughing at the bad acting job.

In a way, this served as example of the relationship the two have created. Franks performing well enough that he feels loose late in a rivalry game, laughing at himself and his coach ready to join him. More so, it’s exactly what the coach asked for from his redshirt sophomore leader eight months ago.

When Mullen arrived in Gainesville a year ago, it was with the excitement and jubilation fueled by his previous stint with the Gators when he helped lead them as offensive coordinator to two National Championships and coached some of the best quarterback play college football has ever seen.

He came off the plane with a huge grin and a perpetual sunny disposition. It was a stark contrast to the quarterback Mullen would find, waiting to assess the newest coach come to tinker with his career.

In Franks, Mullen found someone with all of the physical attributes he knew he could work with, a howitzer for an arm and a teammate that the roster already backed (they voted him as one of eight to the leadership committee). Yet at the ripe age of 19 he was crippling under the weight of the world he felt was on his shoulders and defensive to the point of seeming harsh.

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Back in April when the Gators were still in the midst of spring practice and Franks was still in a quarterback battle with Kyle Trask, Mullen said this of the passer; “I think it's just the learning. You know, the great thing, I think [Feleipe’s] very, very hungry to learn everything about the quarterback position. We'll get him smiling a little bit more at times and lighten up some. You know, it is what it is.

“I thought he's a guy that he's got to learn the situations. You know? I think no matter how good things are, I always tell this: No matter how good things are going for you, you're a bad day away from being out of it.”

It was this understanding from Mullen, the pass given for a redshirt freshman season that saw Franks post a narrow 9-to-8, touchdown-interception ratio and throw for less than 1500 yards, then and a chance to bounce back from it that allowed Franks to accept what happened during the 2017 season.

“Going back there’s some things that I look at now that I with more knowledge of the game, I wouldn’t have did this, I wouldn’t have did that,” said Franks back in March.

“But I don’t spend too much time going back dwelling on what I should have did or what I could have did. It’s more of learning from it and moving forward and not making the same mistake twice. It’s part of the game.” 

That part of the game is what Mullen and quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson and for that matter, the entire crew that came with Mullen wanted their quarterback to understand. A bad day didn’t have to be a horrible day. A good day didn’t have to be the only highlight. And it could all be fun. Feleipe started to grasp this towards the end of spring practice, taking control of the quarterback competition and given free reign to enjoy the Orange and Blue Debut with touchdown celebrations and trick plays. Yet that was just the first step in what would become a long process in Franks and Mullen trusting each other.

As Megan Mullen (Dan’s wife) told Inside the Gators back in October, when the Mullen’s and staff arrived they promised the team, the quarterback room and Feleipe specifically that they would never be put in a situation that could harm them. After making that promise, something happened that’s sadly a rarity in college football; they kept it.

Sitting at the end of the regular season and a date with Michigan in a New Years six bowl game on the horizon, Franks has become the first Gator quarterback to start every game in a season since John Brantley did so in 2010.

His total offensive numbers have jumped significantly. In 2017 they ended at 125-of-225 (55.6%) passing and 58 rushing attempts for 1,458 total yards, nine touchdowns and eight interceptions. Now at the end of the 2018 regular season Franks has gone 175-of-299 (58.5%) and added 96 rush attempts for 2,560 total yards with 29 touchdowns to six interceptions.

He’s figured out he’s bigger than half the guys on the field, leaning in to contact instead of shying away from it, allowing all 6-foot-6, 240-pounds of his frame (the largest Gator quarterback since Cam Newton) to win battles for him. As such his average rushing yards per game went from 1.5 ypg in 2017 to 24.3 ypg in 2018.

"Feleipe tries to run over us in practice,” laughs nickel Chauncey Gardner-Johnson.

“Him bringing it to the game shows he's growing into his body. Not only he's not scared of it, he's not scared to use his body. You see it this year, a lot of guys don't want to get in his way. It's like, 'Is he going to lower his shoulder? Is he going to run us over? Is he going to step up?' You don't know.”

He’s learning to use his teammates, trusting them to work instead of freaking out if his first option isn’t available. As such he’s thrown passes to over 20 guys this season, with seven different guys in double-digit receptions. This is an area of his game that still needs work, as sometimes in close games he has found himself flustered to the point of falling on the old habit of overlooking receivers. But that has happened far and fewer times in between as he’s found options in the run-pass option heavy system.

USA Today Sports Images
After shushing the crowd earlier in the year, Franks is now listening to the cheers of approval

“There were a couple times, we didn’t have anybody open and he didn’t force it,” Mullen said of Franks’ performance and growth following the FSU win.

“He tried to scramble and create or extend the play before he threw it away. But, you know, he did a good job, he didn’t make mistakes and executed well.”

According to his leading receiver, Van Jefferson (31 receptions, 439 yards, six touchdowns), this comes from Franks trusting the system Mullen has given him and Mullen trusting Franks to run it effectively.

“I credit Feleipe and Coach cause Feleipe is a guy that loves to get better. So throughout the week he’ll just come to the receivers and say ‘hey look, just be patient with me and let me get all my reads down and I’m gonna put the ball there so you can go compete for it.’

“So Feleipe does a great job during the week preparing; Coach Mullen does a great job with him too as well to get him ready for big games so it’s all really Feleipe and his mindset so that’s pretty much it.” 

Adds Josh Hammond (26 receptions, 308 yards, four touchdowns), “Mullen put [Feleipe] in all the right situations for him to be successful. He definitely took to it and took on the coaching and took it one day at a time. Like I said, he's a leader and he's a guy that wants to win."

There’s a third aspect of his game though; the emotional side. It’s the most underrated change in Franks’ game this season as it’s helped transform his demeanor in close games, lead his team in big matchups and find moments to dance with his friends and coach…and laugh when he flops.

“He’s an emotional kid,” says Mullen of his quarterback.

Mullen knows, perhaps better than any other coach thanks to Chris Leak and Tim Tebow, what being the quarterback at University of Florida can do to the physique of a young guy. So when the emotional part of Feleipe finally started to resurface as some of the defensive walls came down, the coaching staff elected to nurture and manage it instead of fighting against and punishing it as had been done.

Before the South Carolina game, Mullen told Franks he would get booed much like he had in the loss to Missouri and reminded him it was one part of the tapestry to being the Gators quarterback. So when Franks channeled those emotions and shushed his home crowd—twice—Mullen didn’t punish him for the heel turn performance. It worked for his quarterback, leading two comebacks to the tune of 197 yards and two touchdowns in the 35-31 win. He has reiterated to Franks over and over again, and again after the regular season finale, that it’s his attitude that Mullen will evaluate the most.

“I know it’s tough to play quarterback at the University of Florida. And everybody’s got pretty high standards. But first year in this system, as a sophomore, he’s put up some pretty good numbers this year…we talk about it all the time, I said the opinion that matters is the one that’s in the room. You know, your meeting room. Now, when you’re 20 years old that’s hard to understand and grasp sometimes.

“I told him after the game, I’m not going, you don’t have to look over your shoulder. We’re gonna believe in you, we’re gonna give you confidence and if you go out there and throw picks, we’re not going to pull you. What you need to do, you’re only going to take a seat if you start whining or get like droopy faced or not confident, or not coming off the sideline trying to learn and get better. And I think once he understood that, as the season went, he did really well.”

He did have to understand that first though and learn to trust that promise would be kept. There was understandable trepidation before the former maligned passer realized this wasn’t just coach speak from the new skipper.

Now there’s one game left and it’s a chance not only at redemption for Franks—an opportunity to avenge his first Gator loss against Michigan—but it’s also a chance to put on display for former coaches and the rest of the college football world the offensive groove Feleipe Franks has found with this staff and what Dan Mullen has meant to him over the past year.

“I think he’s meant just developmental wise, he’s helped develop me from last year going through trials and tribulations,” says Franks of Mullen.

“And just now being able to be older and know what to expect coming to a college game, know how to handle certain situations when things aren’t going your way and just keep on pushing. I think that’s what I did really good at; Coach Mullen and Coach (Brian) Johnson have helped me a lot with that, just keeping my mind straight and on track and it’s helped me out a lot.”

When Franks walked off the field following the FSU win, he stopped, soaking in the celebrations. Then he started tossing his towels, armbands, anything he could, into the crowd of screaming fans begging for a piece of their quarterback; fans that had long forgot about booing him less than a month earlier. It’s part of playing quarterback at University of Florida, Mullen has taught Franks, learning to accept the fans ire and fight through the hard times then celebrate with them and smile through the good ones.

Franks will always be Dan Mullen’s first quarterback as the Florida head coach and barring a disaster, Mullen should be Franks’ last Gators head coach. The two crossed paths in Gainesville at the perfect time, building a trust that has helped revitalize a position, which had been dormant for a decade, while giving Feleipe Franks a shot at redemption, rejuvenation and a reason to smile again.

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