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Why Florida fans should cheer, not boo, Feleipe Franks this weekend

Tampa Bay Times
Tampa Bay Times
 2020-11-13
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Florida Gators fans should remember Feleipe Franks as a key part of UF's turnaround, not as a message-board scapegoat. [ Tampa Bay Times ]

It’s easy to envision Feleipe Franks getting booed at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium this weekend when he leads Arkansas against No. 6 Florida.

Even when he was starting for the home team, his relationship with the Gators' fan base could generously be described as rocky. How many quarterbacks have ever shushed their home crowd —twice?

But if Franks and UF fans can look past any hurt feelings, here’s how Franks should be recognized when he reenters The Swamp: As a central figure in the turnaround that has the Gators on a fast track to the SEC championship.

Although Franks arrived as a big-armed, four-star recruit with an NFL frame, he didn’t immediately live up to the hype. As a redshirt freshman in 2017, he threw almost as many interceptions (eight) as touchdowns (nine). Not even a last-second bomb to beat Tennessee could keep him from becoming a message-board lightning rod.

Some of the criticism was fair. A lot of it wasn’t.

It’s not Franks' fault that UF’s limited quarterback room forced him into action before he was ready. It’s also not his fault that his offensive line was a wreck, or that coach Jim McElwain was cracking on his way out the door.

Regardless, Franks' early struggles created a rough reputation he could never shake — one that, unfortunately, overshadowed all the good things he did next.

In his first season under Dan Mullen, Franks had the nation’s third-biggest jump in passing efficiency and accounted for 31 touchdowns (tied for the seventh-most ever at UF). His 2019 numbers were even better before his Gators career ended with an ankle injury at Kentucky.

Beyond the stats, Franks was a beloved leader in the locker room. As he lay on the ground at Kroger Field last September, his teammates flocked around him to show their support.

And even though he had already entered the transfer portal, Franks returned for one more special night with his soon-to-be-former team at last season’s Orange Bowl.

“Everyone’s close to him,” UF running back Malik Davis said.

Franks earned their respect through his dedication and play. Sure, his passion boiled over sometimes. But that fire also sparked the transformation of a program from a four-win team into one that finished seventh nationally and won the 2018 Peach Bowl (where he was the offensive MVP).

“He helped the turnaround of the program to make that happen,” Mullen said.

Mullen credits Franks for helping build a foundation that has the Gators back where they should be, as a top-10 team in the College Football Playoff picture.

A team doesn’t drastically improve the way UF did in Mullen’s first year without buy-in from its incumbent quarterback. Franks' years-long battle with Kyle Trask pushed Trask’s development into one of the best passers in the nation.

That’s not to say Franks was perfect in his four years at UF. He wasn’t. His decision-making wasn’t great, and he let the criticism get to him when he shushed the Gators' crowd twice in a 2018 comeback win over South Carolina.

In an interview with Arkansas reporters this week, Franks sounded more mature — about how to handle fans and everything else.

“I think wisdom comes through experience, not age, in my personal opinion,” Franks said.

Franks' experience at UF gave him a lot to learn from. The lows of his dreadful first start in the ’17 opener against Michigan and getting booed (repeatedly) on his home field. The highs of going 2-0 against Tennessee and earning revenge against the Wolverines in the Peach Bowl.

Franks' rocky tenure ensures he’ll never be as beloved in Gainesville as Tim Tebow or Steve Spurrier. But he left the program better than he found it, and the playoff-contending team he’ll face this weekend might not be where it is without him.

When Franks heads to the opposing sideline Saturday night at the Swamp, the socially distanced fans should remember that.

And thank him for it.

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