COLUMBIA, MO. — In this game a year ago, the quarterback spent three quarters in an all too familiar place.
From the sideline, James Franklin favored a tweaked left knee as he watched an early lead spiral into a 19-15 loss to Vanderbilt.
“MCL,” Franklin said Monday, when asked what he remembered of the game played Oct. 6, 2012.
More injuries, more losses and more frustration were on their way.
It’s difficult to read into what Mizzou’s 4-0 start, the first it has had since 2010, really means after the team limped to a 5-7 finish last year. But if non-conference wins against Murray State, Toledo, Indiana and Arkansas State have told us anything, it’s that a healthy Franklin makes a dramatic difference. The quarterback has gone from a player fighting to keep his starting role to the unquestioned leader of his team.
“I think he is probably mentally tougher,” Mizzou coach Gary Pinkel said Monday. “Going through last year and all that goes with it, the injuries and the criticism. … I’ve mentioned before, I think people learn the most when they go through adversity.”
Franklin’s offense has yet to score less than 38 points in a game. The senior holds a passer rating of 152.8, which is fifth best in the 14-team SEC. He’s completing throws at a 67.6 percent clip, and he has nine touchdowns after totaling 10 last year.
And perhaps most notable has been what Franklin is showing a tendency to do in crunch time: The Tigers have outscored opponents 49-17 in the fourth quarter, late pushes led by Franklin’s play.
“When we’ve needed him to really step up and make plays, he has done it,” Mizzou offensive coordinator Josh Henson said after the Tigers beat Arkansas State 41-19 on Saturday. “What is it? I think you’re just seeing who James Franklin is. I think last year was just an aberration of who he is as a player.”
As Franklin has hushed doubters, he has become more reserved in the public eye. The once happy-go-lucky quarterback seems to smile less. Answers that used to be long-winded and winding instead are cut short. His teammates and coaches describe the change in disposition differently.
“Now, you feel this air of just levelheadedness and relaxation a little bit,” Mizzou left guard Max Copeland said. “Not to say he is passive in any way. But now he knows what the job is to do. It ain’t a big deal. We’ve done it a thousand times before. It’s a calming presence.”
The quiet confidence makes ripples.
“It lingers off to us,” Josey said.
Perhaps an undefeated start against four non-conference teams really means nothing. But it does appear to be enough of a sample size to prove Franklin has at least returned to his sophomore level of play, and more than likely lifted that bar. Regardless, comparing him to the quarterback who was knocked out of the Vanderbilt game one year ago is an apples-to-oranges stretch.
“There is no comparison,” Josey said. “It is a totally different person. He’s a new guy out there.”
Follow Ben Frederickson on Twitter (@Ben_Fred), or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.