That’s how coach Gary Pinkel has always done meetings with players. And, at one point last week, that’s how it was done. James Franklin came into his office and the door was closed.
Pinkel said he told his junior quarterback how “proud” he was. There must’ve been more said there in his office, but Pinkel won’t say.
“Most of it’s confidential,” Pinkel said. “It’s my job to make sure players are OK. And quarterbacks, they get critiqued more than anyone else and I always want him to know where I’m coming from.”
Franklin’s once toothy smile and confident, elaborate voice during interviews have vanished now behind a straight face and soft, short whispers. He threw four interceptions in Saturday's 14-7 loss at Florida.
On Twitter, very soon after the game, one user wrote, “James Franklin is horrendously awful.”
Pinkel has used the past couple weeks protecting Franklin.
“I don’t care if people are tired of hearing it: The guy’s been through a lot," he said.
Months ago in March, during spring training and long before his second season starting behind center after a promising sophomore campaign: chasing after a fumble, diving for it, his right arm extended and eventually crushed beneath a mound of much heavier teammates. Surgery to repair the labrum.
On Sept. 15, minutes to go before a home game against Arizona State: the refusal of a pain-killer shot.
“I see it as a little bit (how) I don't like to drink, and a lot of people drink. I don't like to cuss, and a lot of people cuss," Franklin said about the decision. "Me personally, I’m going to feel the pain and if I’m going to hurt it, then I want to feel every second of it to feel how far I can go and how far I can’t."
The questions of his toughness later.
Late in the opening quarter against Vanderbilt on Oct. 6: a valiant dash for 23 yards and a first down. A square hit in the knee from a Commodore defender’s shoulder. An MCL sprain, a brace, crutches and a severe limp to classes around campus. Ruled out the next week against No. 1 Alabama.
And last Saturday: three interceptions later and yet another chance to take his team downfield for a monumental upset over the No. 8 Gators.
With 1:49 left in the game, he could be seen picking back up his head and jogging back onto the field.
“I kind of felt like I already let the team down,” Franklin said. “… just really wasn’t in the right mindset.”
It was another valiant effort. He completed 6 of 9 passes to get to midfield.
But then it happened again: the footwork not quite right. Franklin took it from shotgun, 10 seconds left, chopped about two and a half steps back, scanned the right, found his man in the middle, attempted to step forward, tried to put the weight on the knee that was injured and released. The ball sailed, sailed … and then one final interception.
“The kid brought it and he played really well,” senior receiver T.J. Moe said of Franklin, who tip-toed to stay in bounds for extra inches on scrambles, even against offensive coordinator David Yost’s instructions earlier in the week to be conservative. “Guys are going to look at few plays and say he played bad, but he was one of the only reasons we moved the ball like that.”
Franklin won’t make excuses for his play. Asked about any pain in his leg, Franklin simply said, “Feels good.”
The quarterback checks his Twitter frequently. He doesn’t respond to what he reads.
“That stuff doesn't really bother me,” he said. “What bothers me is I felt like I let my teammates down.”
His teammates will do the responding for him.
“Hell no, you don't know him,” right guard Max Copeland said. “He’s my brother. He might just be some puppet on a stage to you, but he’s my brother. I love him not only because he’s a good football player but because he’s a good person.”
Copeland said there is more to the offensive line’s job than keeping Franklin physically unharmed.
“It’s protecting him mentally, man,” he said. “You need to make sure he’s thinking right.”
Such will be the task when the team travels Saturday to Knoxville, Tenn., to take on the Volunteers.
“(My teammates) need me to step up and be a leader,” Franklin said.
He said it softly still, almost in a way that was exhausted, in a way that was tired and beaten.
“I think it just showed a little more on him than what everybody’s used to,” Yost said of Franklin's disappointment. “He keeps that smile on and lets it roll off his back, even though I know inside it tears him up when he has games like that."
Yost has seen it all season long.
"Not having the year he kind of expected with the injuries he’s dealt with and not being as consistent and having the type of year he expected, we expected and all those things … I think it kind of all added up," he said.
Pinkel said it again Wednesday: “He’s been through hell.”
And for whatever was said behind that closed door, it’s still behind that closed door.
“Sometimes other people can see things that you can’t,” Franklin said.