COLUMBIA, Mo. – Watch the ball float toward the end zone. It’s a soft spiral, a simple toss – one that shows recovery and resilience after months of unknowns. It’s about 15 yards from junior wide receiver Marcus Lucas when it leaves James Franklin’s palm.
It lands in Lucas’ hands in the left corner of a practice field, his fade route complete. It’s part of the routine early in Missouri’s first preseason workout Thursday afternoon. In any other year, memory of such a throw – forgettable in itself – would dissolve into an afternoon filled with sounds of whistles, chatter between players and coaches’ commands. In any other year, Franklin would be studied, not dissected, while prepping to lead the Tigers for a second consecutive season. In any other year, questions about the junior quarterback’s health would be broached with less urgency.
But curiosity surrounding Franklin’s condition is part of life at Mizzou, and it was obvious again Thursday with a swarm of cameras and recorders near the 6-foot-2, 225-pound Corinth, Texas, native before he settled into a small pool nearby to end his day: How is the right shoulder, the one that required surgery in March after you tore your labrum when leaping on a fumble in spring drills? Do you feel OK? During this season of firsts, can you lead Missouri into the Southeastern Conference?
“I felt great today, and I wasn’t even going all out, and I still had some velocity on the ball,” said Franklin, who threw for 2,865 yards with 21 touchdowns and 11 interceptions in his first season as a starter last year, before missing the remainder of spring drills after the injury.
“So I’m excited to go all out in the next couple of days and see how everything feels. … At one point, I almost felt like I was a rookie, because it seemed like I hadn’t been out here in so long. But after a couple of snaps, I got back into the swing of things, and it felt really good.”
It must have felt good for Missouri coach Gary Pinkel too. Much of the past five months has been a catwalk for his program. New uniforms were unveiled, new turf was spread and the coach was paraded before curious scribes at SEC Media Days.
But the fashion show ended with Pinkel stalking the field Thursday and glaring at drills through thin sunglasses. At last, attention turned to work between the hashes, and much of it was focused on Franklin.
Rightfully so: No player will dictate the Tigers’ success (or stumble) more in the coming months than the buttoned-down, “Yes, sir,” “No, sir,” quarterback. No player has more opportunity to prove that the Tigers, with six returning starters on offense, are better than the middling SEC East result most envision for them.
Thursday’s session began work to beat those projections. Franklin’s presence on the field made the goal seem attainable.
“If you walked out here and didn’t know he had surgery, you wouldn’t think anything was up,” Pinkel said. “I kind of marvel at him. He’s a remarkable athlete to be able to do what he’s doing after that surgery. We have a month left before we play (Southeastern Louisiana on Sept. 1). That’s very, very encouraging – to think where we were back in spring football when this whole thing went down. He’s got a great attitude. And obviously, he’s genetically gifted.”
Franklin is gifted in other ways too. Returning from the injury represents another achievement in a career that has taken on a theme of recovery. The quarterback has shown the skill to rebound in two-plus years here, and it’s a trait he’ll need when facing a rugged schedule that some predict will send Missouri tumbling to a sixth-place finish in their division.
To think, Franklin’s career started smooth. He was rated as one of the nation’s top dual-threat quarterbacks out of Lake Dallas High. His skillset drew comparisons to former Tigers great Brad Smith, and he appeared in 10 games as a freshman in 2010 as the presumed heir apparent to Blaine Gabbert.
Tests came hard and fast though. First, Franklin survived a tight race with reserve Tyler Gabbert for the top spot in spring 2011. Then he tossed a combined six interceptions in consecutive games against Kansas State, Iowa State and Oklahoma State last fall – a brutal mid-season stretch in which Missouri went 1-2 after splitting its first four contests. Then there were legitimate concerns about Franklin’s ability to handle the job against aggressive defenses.
Was his mind strong enough? It seemed like a fair question last October, shortly after Oklahoma State throttled Missouri by 21 points at Memorial Stadium. That day, the Cowboys intercepted Franklin a season-high three times.
But the resilient son of a pastor chased those concerns in the following weeks. Franklin threw 10 touchdowns with four interceptions as the Tigers went 5-1 to close the year.
Franklin’s return from the shoulder injury only adds to the scrap-and-survive legacy formed last season. Through it all, he has earned teammates’ trust.
“He was always in treatment time after time after time,” senior running back Kendial Lawrence said. “He was so eager to get back. That is what did it for a lot of guys: ‘Oh, this guy is fighting. He really wants to be there with us.’ That really means a lot to the team. Probably the hardest part (for Franklin) was just getting back out here with the team. We’re all a big family, and we basically do everything together. Him not being able to be there – I think that was probably the toughest thing for him.”
For Franklin, the absence was tough. He had made progress in rehab, and about a month after surgery, he decided to test his shoulder’s strength.
One day, he picked up a football. He knew it was too early to try such a thing, but he cocked his shoulder back anyway, his competitive streak taking over. He thought to himself, “Ugh, OK. It’s not ready,” upon feeling pain.
Still, the moment showed Franklin’s drive. It’s a focus that makes him an appropriate leader for Missouri’s season of firsts, a time when direction in the huddle must be strong to give the Tigers a chance to be competitive. His growth is ongoing.
“From a quarterback standpoint, they want me more vocal,” Franklin said. “Coming into this, and how my dad (Willie) raised me, I just lead by example. I really had to make the adjustment of being more vocal. … I’m trying to attack that and be more vocal with it so I can get a better response from the guys. I see that over the summer it helped, and so that’s what I’m really going to try to apply this summer in this upcoming season.”
Why not? In any year, his comeback would impress. In any year, that’s leadership to be valued.