SEC proves new challenge for Franklin
COLUMBIA, Mo. - Long after the last snap, Missouri's "Tank" shares a light moment in the end zone. He stands before a group of reporters at Memorial Stadium, grading his play from the Tigers' third preseason scrimmage. He looks ahead with a grin, his program's first Southeastern Conference campaign another day closer.
James Franklin appears calm. This is a common sight with the junior quarterback after practices. He's asked about his 28-yard touchdown run earlier in the afternoon, one in which he raced downfield untouched. He begins to laugh.
"Thankfully, everyone was tired," Franklin says, cracking up. "So that made it a little bit better."
Franklin's composure will be studied all fall. In moments like this, he seems to have a healthy balance of confidence and drive - a competitive streak that fits his nickname, "The Tank," that has stuck since his time at Lake Dallas (Texas) High.
Missouri will need Franklin to show both traits. The 6-foot-2, 228-pound Corinth, Texas, native will guide the Tigers' offensive direction. His leadership will be tested against unfamiliar schemes, and his ability to manage adversity will reveal much about Missouri in its SEC transition.
"He's tremendously a different player than he was a year ago at this time," Missouri coach Gary Pinkel says. "He's potentially really good. We're pushing him to get it out, and the good news is he wants to be really good too."
Franklin's task will be similar to the one that quarterbacks at Arkansas and South Carolina faced when the SEC expanded before the 1992 season. In many ways, he'll be a first-year starter again: There will be new stadiums to learn, new defenders to avoid and new blitz packages to study.
Much about major college football has changed in 20 years. Still, like quarterbacks at Arkansas and South Carolina then, Missouri's leader must evolve with his program to thrive.
Barry Lunney Jr. stood on the field before kickoff and stared at the specimens across the way. Opponents changed with each week, but his hollow feeling remained constant.
It was 1992. The then-freshman Arkansas quarterback was part of the Razorbacks' first team after leaving the Southwest Conference. Auburn and Alabama, LSU and Tennessee were on Arkansas' schedule that year. Lunney understood the challenge.
"You look down there and think, 'This might not be real good today,'" he says now.
There were tough days in Arkansas' first SEC year. The Razorbacks finished 3-7-1 with victories over South Carolina, Tennessee and LSU, plus a tie against Auburn. Lunney received his first start against the Volunteers six games into the season. He finished with 1,015 yards passing with four touchdowns and five interceptions that fall.
Arkansas' first SEC year was a culture shock in more ways than the record showed. The Razorbacks went 9-14 in the first two seasons under coach Jack Crowe. Then Crowe resigned one game into the 1992 campaign after a loss to the Citadel, leaving defensive coordinator Joe Kines as interim coach.
"One of the things we faced as a program was the mental block that you have associated with programs like Alabama and Auburn and Tennessee," says Lunney, now the offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach at Bentonville (Ark.) High. "Anybody that knows anything about football knows the history of those stadiums. … That was a transition for us to get past the logo, so to speak."
Franklin will have a similar transition. Georgia's trip Sept. 8 to Memorial Stadium will be one of Missouri's most anticipated games in history. Then on Oct. 13, Alabama will arrive boasting 14 national titles. The Tigers' schedule also includes visits to sites like South Carolina, Florida and Tennessee.
How will Franklin handle it all? Lunney has this advice: Stay true to yourself. For the Missouri quarterback, that means being a dual-threat presence. He has 2,971 yards passing and 1,097 yards rushing in two seasons.
Will Franklin's style translate to the SEC, a league known for defensive speed? Missouri's spread scheme was to credit for the program's rise in the Big 12. Still, Lunney found in 1992 that a learning curve was required to move forward.
"Once you beat them the first time, then they become a lot more normal to you," Lunney says of SEC opponents. "They become more like a conference opponent to you than somebody that you're going (against) to gain admiration and respect."
Steve Taneyhill recalls the memory with awe. It's a recent afternoon in August. The former South Carolina quarterback is long removed from the 1992 season in which he started the last six games as a brash freshman.
Still, the size of SEC defensive linemen impresses him.
"When you looked back when that season was over, you were like, 'That was unbelievable,'" says Taneyhill, now the football coach at Union County (S.C.) High. "Just those front four guys - how big and athletic they were."
Perhaps, but that didn't faze him. Taneyhill guided the Gamecocks to a victory over Mississippi State in his first start. The result sparked a recovery: After starting 0-5, South Carolina won all but one of its last six games.
Taneyhill finished with 1,272 yards passing with seven touchdowns and six interceptions that season. His lone loss came at Florida, where communication problems in the crazed environment became a welcome-to-the-SEC moment for the former independent school.
"You get down to a certain end zone, and you can't hear," Taneyhill says. "With all those stadiums growing these days, I don't know if that will be a problem (for Missouri). It's loud at Tennessee. It's loud at Florida. It's loud at Alabama. When you play Georgia - those fans, it feels like they're right on top of you. It's week-in and week-out. … The players will enjoy the passion from the fans every week. That's something that I think the other conferences don't get."
Can Franklin lead the Tigers within the soupy air at The Swamp in November? Can he guide them through a Rocky Top roar at Neyland Stadium a week later?
He will earn teammates' trust if he's strong. That's Taneyhill's advice for the Missouri quarterback: Don't shy away from a fight, because your squad's success will depend on you punching back after an opponent's swing.
"That's one thing you find out about the SEC quarterbacks - they'll all pretty tough guys, because they're going to take a beating," Taneyhill says. "You've got to get the ball out of your hand and take your licks here and there and just get yourself back up. It's a tough league. He'll find that out, because it's week-in and week-out, and there's really no off weeks. So best of luck."
Eyes will be on Franklin's health along the way. He returned for preseason camp after undergoing surgery on his right shoulder in March to repair a torn labrum.
Franklin says he's fine, and he has looked decent in drills. But little will be learned until he cradles a snap against Georgia to kick-start the Tigers' new era.
Two decades ago, Taneyhill was ready for SEC tests. Will Missouri's leader have the same fire?
"These guys are giants, and you're going to take a beating," Taneyhill says. "For me, I never missed a game, and I think that helped, because then you can be a leader. Even if you're not a vocal leader, you can be a leader by being a tough guy and being there every snap."
Franklin continues talking after the scrimmage, and little about his expression has changed. He answers questions with, "Yes, sir," and "Yes, ma'am," and he seems collected before a historic season.
Franklin is asked what has surprised him about his growth in the past month. He begins an answer on footwork - he doesn't take as wide a step when he throws, he says - but then he has a deeper response about the greatest challenge he'll face.
"I think mentally - just being ready off the get-go," he says. "Because sometimes in the beginning … I didn't necessarily have a lot of confidence going out in some games last year. I think that's what hurt in the performance - why I didn't do so well in the beginning. I think the biggest challenge this year is having the confidence right off the bat."
Confidence is a hard trait to gauge, and it's more difficult to gain. It's partly why former quarterback Chase Daniel led Missouri to a No. 1 ranking and within one victory of the BCS Championship Game in 2007. It's a necessity for a leader, but it can be elusive.
Missouri's first SEC year will include challenge, and the Tigers will rely on Franklin for control. It's easy to appear calm after a preseason scrimmage in August. But will he be composed when Georgia and Alabama linemen chase him for a sack? How will he respond?
"James is really smart," Missouri sophomore wide receiver Jimmie Hunt says. "He's good at recognizing defenses and coverages and playing relaxed. That's one of the things he has most definitely progressed with over the summer. He's going to do a great job. … He knows we've got his back, and he's got our back. Just go out there and play the game."
That's what Lunney and Taneyhill learned in their first SEC years. They had to demystify opponents to succeed.
For Lunney, the transition took time. For Taneyhill, it was smoother. Both learned that adjustment - everything from communication in foreign stadiums to embracing new routines - is no simple task.
"I think anytime you make a change - you buy a new house and sell your old one and you take the same furniture, and it's still not the same when you put it into a new house," says Kines, Arkansas' interim coach in 1992. "You can take your team and come into a new conference, and it's not going to be the same with everything you have been used to."
That's why Franklin's leadership will be crucial. Before walking into a locker room, he's asked if he's prepared mentally for the season ahead.
He speaks with confidence.
"I think I'll have to figure that out," Franklin says. "I don't know yet, but once I do, I'll be happy about it."