For many people, the weight of quarterbacking an offensive system that has fashioned its own model for college aerial attacks could be crushing. Following in the shoes of a top 10 NFL Draft selection might be daunting. Fielding rapid-fire questions from a dozen media members might be overwhelming.
The 19-year-old Missouri sophomore that is now dealing with these daily challenges isn’t fazed. New Tigers starting quarterback James Franklin reels it all in, laughing and begging for more. It’s all right, his smile says. I’ve got help.
As he assumes the same role recently played to NFL success by former Tiger quarterbacks Brad Smith, Chase Daniel and Blaine Gabbert, Franklin enjoys what his predecessors did not: the comfort of taking on the new responsibility with a host of teammates who already know the drill.
The much talked-about signal caller represents half of the new starters the Missouri Tigers offense will welcome this fall as they search for their seventh consecutive bowl appearance. An experienced Missouri roster returns every single receiver and running back to go along with four senior offensive linemen.
As Franklin embarks on his collegiate quarterbacking career, he will do so blanketed by a host of experienced teammates, many both talented and accomplished.
“It’s a little easier for me because they’re so experienced, they can make up for some of my small mistakes, even though I’m trying not to make any,” Franklin said. “It’s really comforting to know that as I come out here, they’ve all been there before and they can help me through it.”
As Franklin attempts to find himself amid the crowd of established faces, comparisons fluctuate with regards to the past Tigers that have taken snaps behind center, all of which handled the ropes like masters of the craft.
Smith was the first player in NCAA D-1A history to throw for 8,000 yards and rush for 4,000 yards in a career. Daniel was a two-time Heisman Trophy finalist. Gabbert played his way to the 10th overall selection in last spring’s NFL Draft.
But while expectations are high, coach Gary Pinkel claims Franklin will be held to no standard other than his own.
“I think there’s a high expectation level and I think that’s okay,” Pinkel said. “But we don’t ever ask a quarterback to be like the guy before him.”
Rather than base expectations on the past, Pinkel has devised his own list of attributes he hopes to see out of his young leader during his time as a Tiger.
“I think it’s all about consistency, like any quarterback,” he said. “If you’re increasing your completion percentage, making sure that you’re not throwing interceptions, not forcing the football… I think those are the areas of a natural maturation at quarterback.”
Coinciding with talk of what he can do on the field, preseason anticipation has called into question whether Franklin can handle being the boss of experienced players while only a sophomore himself.
“My thing with James is that everyone has their own leadership style,” Pinkel said. “Blaine had his, Chase Daniel had his… The best thing you can do as a young quarterback, leadership wise, the best thing you can do is play well. That’s what we’re looking for.”
To meet such command, Franklin will be asked to utilize the skills that made him a three-star recruit out of Corinth, Texas and got him on the field for occasional plays as a freshman in 2010. The six-foot-two, 225-pound quarterback played in a similar offense to Missouri’s at Lake Dallas High School, primarily throwing the ball while showing off his foot speed on broken plays.
“I think we can run him more, I think people are aware of that,” Pinkel said. “We also want him to be in the pocket. He’s that kind of a thrower. He can extend plays. He can buy time back there with his athleticism.”
The last time a quarterback with similar legs to Franklin’s held the keys to the Missouri offense, NCAA records fell in pieces to the floor. But current Tigers are dismissing the idea that Franklin will try to be another Brad Smith.
“James is a passer,” wide receiver Wes Kemp said. “He came in for packages because Blaine was hurt last year, but, really, James is a passer more than anything. He’s a quick guy, too, but he’s no Brad Smith.”
Franklin’s view of himself was much the same.
“Last year, I came in and ran a lot, so people get the idea that I’m just a running quarterback,” he said. “Hopefully that will change this year.”
Be it by running or passing, by leading the way or merely playing along, Franklin’s new role is of minimal concern to those out to help him master it.
“James is really coming along, there’s not a whole lot you can say about him,” junior slot receiver TJ Moe said. “All he has to do is play like he’s been playing and build off of what he’s already done.”
For Pinkel, the fret over breaking in a new offensive leader is years passed.
“He’ll be okay,” Pinkel said, cracking a smile. “We’ve done this a few times.”