GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The dynamic that confronts Feleipe Franks this spring is the same dynamic that confronted every Florida quarterback that came before him over the past decade.
Only with a small twist.
Rather than asking whether Florida finally has an answer at quarterback, there is a tentative belief that, yes, maybe Franks is the answer at quarterback. Two monster performances against Florida State and Michigan to close last season have shifted a stale narrative about a quarterback succession plan that has failed Florida every year since Tim Tebow played his final season in 2009.
With newfound optimism about Franks comes newfound optimism about Florida, a program suddenly filled with high expectations after a 10-win season. But if anything, Franks has proven to be a mercurial player throughout his career. He has shown tantalizing glimpses of his potential, beating rivals with jaw-dropping Hail Marys, only to turn around and get benched for underperforming.
Only when Franks gets to a place where he is consistently good all the time, where he shuts out the naysayers, where he focuses despite distractions, will the questions about Florida quarterbacks stop. He knows it. Coach Dan Mullen knows it. An anxious fan base desperate to believe knows it.
"There are three statues in front of the stadium that make playing quarterback at Florida different than almost every other school in America," Mullen says. "There's no bigger job in the SEC than being the quarterback at Florida. So with that comes a lot of responsibility. What did he end up with 31 touchdowns and six interceptions last year? A lot of places, you're up there. Not here. You better come to grips with that."
Franks grew up in a small town outside Tallahassee, but he never really paid much attention to college football. Everyone around him loved Florida State. Franks just shrugged his shoulders, not caring much one way or the other. It was not until midway through high school when he realized he could play big-time college football somewhere.
He had one main priority: Play in a big stadium filled with a lot of fans. After initially committing to LSU, he flipped to Florida, giving then-coach Jim McElwain a huge recruiting victory in 2016. For Florida to return to prominence, it needed a quarterback. Franks seemed to check off the boxes, a raw but talented 6-foot-6 ESPN 300 prospect with a powerful arm.
When he arrived, Franks says he did not have all his priorities in line and did not have a clear understanding about everything he needed to do to prepare himself to become a starter. Franks redshirted, then went 3-5 as a starter the following season -- enough to elicit both love and vitriol across social media for his overall performance.
"It's easier said than done when people say, 'Don't look at social media,' because when you pull up your phone and you see 99-plus notifications after every game, and it's either going to be good or it's going to be bad, so it's hard to not look at that stuff," Franks says.
Those negative comments stuck with Franks, and he found himself in an echo chamber filled with negativity he could not escape. Even when Mullen came in last season and offered Franks a fresh start, Franks could not stop listening to the negativity long enough to focus on what his coaches and teammates needed him to do to play consistently. He got benched after a poor performance against Missouri in November, and then Florida trailed 14-0 the following week to South Carolina. The familiar boos began. But after Franks scored a touchdown to tie the game at 14, he did what is normally unthinkable. He shushed his home crowd. Then he did it again later in the game, after Florida erased a 31-14 deficit to win.
"From that moment on, he was a different player," Mullen says. "He stopped worrying about everybody else. He stopped worrying about what people on Twitter thought where he should throw the ball to, what the media thought about his reads or the fans thought about his reads or his style of play."
Did something change with that one gesture?
"I wouldn't say it was something that clicked," Franks says. "The reason I shushed was because I was more just, like, pissed, but I don't know if anything just clicked. It's one of those things that I'm going to go out here and play hard and see how it goes from there. I know what kind of player I can be. I know what kind of player I am. It's just going out and playing freely."
In his final three games, Franks combined for nine touchdowns to zero interceptions and helped break a long losing streak to Florida State. But the real eye-opener came against Michigan, when Franks played like a completely transformed quarterback. He looked comfortable and confident, making the right reads in the passing game, while becoming a more physical runner when needed.
Florida won 41-15, and Franks won universal praise for his performance. He entered this offseason with a new priority list, thanks in large part to advice from his older brother, Jordan, now in the NFL. Franks knows how to study a game plan now, how to watch film, how to ask questions, how to spend extra time with the coaches.
"I was telling him, I know you're not getting paid, but you have to think of it as an investment, and whatever you put in is what you're going to get out," Jordan Franks says. "So if you put in the amount of work you want to be successful and live right by football and school, then you're going to be successful on the field. That comes with film study and practice. Some people overthink it. I said, keep it simple. If you think it's right, then most likely you're going to be right."
Though Mullen always says every position is an open competition, the quarterback job belongs to Franks until someone else beats him out. During the spring, coaches have watched the ways in which Franks has grown up, starting with his focus.
"He has such a high talent level that his arc should be really, really high in terms of what he's able to do on the field," quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson said. "Now, in order to do that, it's all about your habits and making sure you're not letting one bad play make you go on a run of three bad plays."
Mullen brings up the perfect example. During one practice this spring, Franks made a throw that looked like he intentionally spiked it at his receivers' feet. Mullen turned to him and said, "Next time just call clock, and we'll spike it at the line of scrimmage if you're going to do that." Franks laughed it off, rather than worrying about what the fans watching would say on social media, or letting the bad throw lead to another bad throw.
He got out of his own head.
When the Gators kick off against Miami on Aug. 24, Florida expects to see an improved version of the Franks the nation saw in Atlanta. Franks demands it of himself.
"It's weird how maturity flips your mindset as you get older," Franks says. "I don't think I could have said a couple years ago I want to be the top quarterback in this country, but now I've got confidence and I have experience. I feel like I can say that.
"That's where I want to be. I don't want to stop until that happens."