Missouri has its senior captain back at quarterback.
Coach Gary Pinkel said Monday that James Franklin is "100 percent cleared" and will lead the eighth-ranked Tigers at Ole Miss this weekend after missing four starts with a sprained throwing shoulder.
The quarterback had been enjoying a career season through five games and positioned his team for a win at Georgia on Oct. 12 before getting slammed to the ground by two defenders.
"At first, you could tell that it hurt James a lot," center Evan Boehm said. "And the only thing you can do is go up and be like, `Hey, man, we’re with you. We feel your pain. You’re going to bounce back and you’re going to be a great quarterback.’"
Franklin wasn’t so sure he would be back after missing four starts with a myriad of injuries last season to his head, shoulder and legs. But a talk with his father, Willie, the day after the setback helped him realize there are many things in life to be more upset or sad about.
"Even if they told me I would’ve been done for sure," Franklin said, "I would’ve worked as hard as I could to come back."
The 6-foot-2, 230-pound native of Corinth, Texas, watched Missouri (9-1, 5-1 Southeastern Conference) compile a 3-1 record with redshirt freshman Maty Mauk, who had thrown three career passes before relieving Franklin against the Bulldogs.
While the only loss came in a 27-24, double-overtime thriller against South Carolina, the offense regressed slightly, unable to execute the read-option play as well as it had with Franklin. Mauk said his mentor, though hurt, would stand on the sidelines with him to help read defenses.
"It’s not like he’s been standing around over at the library," quarterbacks coach Andy Hill said.
Franklin has practiced for three weeks and played two series in the fourth quarter of the Tigers’ last game, a 48-17 romp over Kentucky on Nov. 9, handing the ball off in each of his five snaps. His task gets considerably more difficult this week at Ole Miss (7-3, 3-3), which knocked off LSU earlier this season in Oxford.
Missouri must win Saturday and again next week at home against Texas A&M to win the SEC East in just its second season in the league. South Carolina finished 6-2 in conference after defeating Florida 19-14 on Saturday and owns the head-to-head tiebreaker with the Tigers.
Pinkel noted that his team still controls its destiny, so there’s no reason to fixate on the do-or-die nature of Missouri’s final two games.
"I’ll be real disappointed if we start putting those pressures on ourselves," he said. "That doesn’t help you play well."
Helping matters will be the return of Franklin and his cool demeanor. A three-year starter, the dual-threat quarterback emits a sense of confidence in the huddle that helps keep his teammates grounded, Boehm said.
Franklin’s gaudy statistics help, too.
His pass-completion rate of 67.7 percent trails only Johnny Manziel and AJ McCarron in the SEC, and Franklin threw 14 touchdown passes in his first six games. He added three scores on the ground. With Franklin, Missouri ranked in the top 12 nationally in total offense (515.7 yards), scoring offense (45.7 points) and third-down conversion rate (51 percent).
Offensive coordinator Josh Henson said there could be some nerves the first time Franklin gets hit again, but the quarterback knows there’s no use worrying about it.
"If you’re going to go play, you’re going to get hit," Henson said. "It’s just the way it is. So he’s going to get hit and he’s just going to have to play through it."
If he manages to stay healthy, Franklin could give Missouri a chance to win its first conference championship since 1969.
"At the end of the day, this team is special because they’re a bunch of kids that have the bodies of men that just like going out there and knocking heads together and playing football together," guard Max Copeland said. "That’s what it’s all about. We love playing this game together."