ARLINGTON — James Franklin’s career at Missouri has gone far different than how he envisioned when it began in 2010, when he was being groomed to replace eventual first-round draft pick Blaine Gabbert as the Tigers’ quarterback.
He’s faced several injuries, fan criticism and perceived quarterback controversies, but tonight at AT&T Stadium, the former Lake Dallas standout has a chance to close out his collegiate career in front of his hometown fans.
“It’s pretty exciting,” said Franklin, who will be playing his first college game in the Dallas-Fort Worth area in his final game in a Missouri uniform. “The coolest thing is it’s close to home. It doesn’t make it more special, but I do have a lot of friends and family here and it’ll be cool that they can come watch me.”
Franklin’s time at Missouri has been filled with success and setbacks.
As a sophomore, he was named the offensive MVP of the Independence Bowl and finished the 2011 season with 2,865 passing yards and 21 touchdowns to go with 1,168 rushing yards and nine more scores.
That promising season gave Missouri fans good reason to believe they had their next great quarterback, following in the footsteps of big names like Gabbert, Chase Daniel and Brad Smith.
But the 2012 season was different.
Franklin went under the knife for shoulder surgery prior to the season, reinjured the shoulder early in the fall, and then suffered a knee injury and a concussion while struggling through the Tigers’ inaugural season in the Southeastern Conference.
Criticism from Missouri fans came in waves.
“I think last year it kind of got to him,” said senior offensive lineman Justin Britt, a first-team All-SEC selection. “He wasn’t able to do anything to answer that criticism [because of the injuries]. This year, I think he just didn’t care. Since day 1, he just didn’t care. He’s handled himself well. He’s ignored the outside stuff, and he’s focused on winning.”
This year, the winning has come in bunches for No. 9 Missouri, which faces No. 13 Oklahoma State tonight in the Cotton Bowl.
The Tigers won the SEC Eastern Division before losing to No. 2 Auburn in the conference championship game. Franklin has passed for 2,255 yards and 19 touchdowns while rushing for 474 yards and four scores.
Yet, even with Missouri’s success in its second season as an SEC program, it hasn’t been smooth sailing for Franklin.
The Tigers beat then-No. 7 Georgia on the road to improve to 6-0 on the season, as Franklin threw a touchdown pass and rushed for another score before leaving the game with a shoulder sprain — an injury that, at the time, was thought to be a season ender.
It was then that Franklin’s high school head coach, Lake Dallas’ Michael Young, reached out to his former quarterback to offer some encouragement.
“After that Georgia game, I sent him a text and pretty much told him if that’s his last college game it was a heck of a way to go out as a winner and as a warrior,” Young said. “It’s nice to see him get to play again, especially here in [Dallas-Fort Worth]. I’m really glad it’s happened this way.”
Franklin was back on the field in mop-up time four weeks later and back in the starting lineup the following week for a 24-10 win over Mississippi. Since then, it’s been Franklin’s team once again, just the way his teammates wanted it, despite their confidence in redshirt freshman backup Maty Mauk, who was 3-1 as a starter.
“We always told him, as offensive linemen, that we’re always with him and he’s our quarterback,” Missouri center Evan Boehm said. “Maty was here, but he’s [Franklin] our No. 1, and we told him he had to get back out with us. And that’s what he did. Whoever is behind us, we trust, but we want to see James be as successful as possible.”
That was the consensus opinion Monday at Cotton Bowl media day when Missouri players and coaches were asked about their quarterback and team captain.
“We all face adversity,” Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel said. “No one likes it, but we all go through it. And if you go through it with the right attitude you can learn so much to help yourself.
“I think that is what he did. He is a little bit mentally tougher. He is a little bit more resilient. He is more determined than he has ever been. He has just battled through it. And I just have great respect for him, and I think certainly his teammates do for all he has done.”
All that is left for Franklin as a Tiger now is one final game, and he’ll play in front of several friends and family who might not have had an opportunity to see him play live since his days as a Lake Dallas Falcon.
After that, Franklin will begin preparation for May’s NFL draft, for which his stock is rising according to several draft experts, including NFL.com, which recently listed him as one of five players whose draft stock is rising.
But before that, he has his 31st career start.
“There’s definitely some goals that I had set that I wanted to get done but didn’t have the opportunity to, whether from being hurt or just lack of performance,” Franklin said. “But I’m excited to finish up my career in the Cotton Bowl, and hopefully with a Cotton Bowl win.”
ADAM BOEDEKER can be reached at 940-566-6872 and via Twitter at @aboedeker.