COLUMBIA, Mo. — Don’t be surprised if Missouri quarterback James Franklin seeks the path of least resistance this fall. He’s under orders.
The Tigers were 5-7 in their first season in the Southeastern Conference, their first without a bowl trip since 2004, and it didn’t help matters that Franklin missed four starts and was almost never close to 100 percent. The Lake Dallas product was still recovering from shoulder surgery when fall workouts began, and during the season was dogged by knee woes, a concussion, cracked rib, broken fingers and a few pulled muscles.
“Along those lines,” Franklin said after detailing the highlights. “But it’s over now.”
Franklin ran for 15 touchdowns his sophomore year and remains a threat. Coaches, however, would much rather see him scamper out of bounds or execute a stylish slide in a conference full of NFL-ready defensive players.
They already know he’s tough. But operating behind a line ravaged by injuries, Franklin got beat up last season as a junior.
“If you get a composite of all the injuries at quarterback in my 25 years or so of coaching, he had more on one body in one year than I had in 25 years,” head coach Gary Pinkel said. “No excuses. He wasn’t crying and moaning, he battled through it.”
The goal this season is simple: Getting their unfailingly polite leader, who tacks on “yes sir” or “no sir” to virtually every answer during interviews, back to the huddle upright.
“Obviously, in this league you look around at future NFL players and you don’t want to give them a whole lot of opportunities to take shots at your quarterback,” new offensive coordinator Josh Henson said. “You also want to have him available when he’s got those [running] skills at certain times that are critical situations.”
None of his ailments last year, Franklin maintained, were the result of going for the extra yard. He’s not scared about getting banged up by defenses, either.
“I’m not really worried about running the ball, but I do want to get down more because it’s not fun being sore the next day,” Franklin said. “There’s a lot of bumps and bruises you have to work out throughout the week. That’s something they’ve talked to me about, getting down and not taking those shots.”
Missouri hasn’t ditched the spread offense, so Franklin could still end up in lots of empty backfields. Henson estimated that Franklin would probably have fewer designed runs and said he’s told his quarterback countless times it’s about “being smart.”
“He has to go down,” Henson said. “It’s not about you showing your toughness. If you don’t protect yourself, you hurt the team.”
Pinkel has been impressed with backup quarterback Maty Mauk, and as in past seasons plans on setting aside playing time for the presumed starter in waiting. Three former Missouri quarterbacks are in the NFL, and Franklin got his feet wet backing up future Jaguars starter Blaine Gabbert, just as Chase Daniel did behind Brad Smith.
Franklin arrived at fall camp as one of four team captains, although without the No. 1 job. When Missouri opens on Saturday night against FCS school Murray State, it’ll be nearly two weeks since Pinkel ended the suspense while complimenting the soft-spoken Franklin for his leadership qualities.
“He’s grown a lot; he’s matured a lot,” Pinkel said.
Franklin’s numbers were way down last year, with 10 touchdown passes and seven interceptions along with 116 yards rushing. As a sophomore, he threw for 21 touchdowns with 11 interceptions and rushed for 981 yards and 15 scores.
A few days away from his last college opener, Franklin said Pinkel’s announcement was no surprise: “Not really, no sir.”
Pinkel noted fans always want to see the backup.
“I just try to focus on making sure I’m being smart,” Franklin said. “Whether I have anything to prove, I’ll try to lead the team to some points and help us win.”