AUBURN, Ala. — When John Franklin III left East Mississippi Community College and transferred to Auburn, he never thought he’d have to return to Mississippi.
He never dreamed he’d be looking forward to it, either.
Yet as the quarterback consistently has shown over the last year, he’s skilled at navigating the unexpected – no matter the opponent, stadium or circumstance he encounters.
Most recently, Franklin capitalized on an opportunity during the Tigers’ homecoming win against ULM. He broke through a seam and torched Warhawk defenders, flying 80 yards for a touchdown. The two-play possession took 39 seconds.
“There’s no doubt John is starting to feel more comfortable,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said after the homecoming win. “He’s been getting all the (No.) 2 reps for over a month now, so he’s getting more comfortable. You can see him out there on the field, he’s more comfortable. So we’ll just see how the season goes. He’s always ready and he’s improving.”
And though Auburn is headed to Starkville for its first SEC road game against Mississippi State this weekend — Franklin’s first trip back to The Magnolia State since leaving Scooba, Miss., — nothing is changing much.
“Just trying to make it every day, getting better as a quarterback, getting better as a person,” Franklin said. “I feel like I have a role on this team and a plan. Coach Malzahn and God have a plan for me. I’m just going with the flow right now, not stressing or looking forward to the future. Just one day at a time right now.”
Few understand Franklin’s time at Auburn as well as Clint Trickett.
The EMCC quarterbacks coach was one of the first to approach Franklin about the junior college route when he decided to leave Florida State. Trickett coached Franklin as he joined the Lions and fought for the starting job, later backing up current Mississippi State backup quarterback Wyatt Roberts.
Last year when Trickett and Franklin discussed the Lions’ quarterback battle, there was more pressure because of the chance Franklin wouldn’t end up at another Power 5 school.
Since landing at Auburn, Franklin has been competing for time again.
“I think he’s used to it because he’s been doing that,” Trickett said. “He did it last year, there were times you never know when he was having to come in and do it. Throughout camp (at EMCC) he battled, they all had, they all rotated in there.”
When Franklin arrived at Auburn he competed against Sean White and Jeremy Johnson for the starting QB job. After sporadic appearances in Auburn’s home opener against Clemson, he was the Tigers’ third-best rusher against Arkansas State, racking up 70 yards on four carries.
Of course, part of the reason Franklin has been named the backup and eased into game situations has been his athleticism.
It’s the same thing that has Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee exploring more options with Franklin, including more packages and perhaps even a position switch.
“He’s one of the fastest people I’ve met, straight line speed,” Trickett said. “The game of football is more than just straight line speed, but it certainly helps when you can have that threat on the field. You’re going to want that on there…That’s something that’s rare and when you have it you’ve got to find a way to utilize it.”
His speed also was one of the first things CJ Reavis noticed about Franklin when the two met at EMCC.
Now at Marshall, Reavis saw Franklin dedicate time before and after practice to becoming a better passer and more complete player. He also witnessed Franklin’s playmaking ability first hand when the quarterback scrambled out of broken-down plays with his feet and his arm.
“He’s a gamer. That’s what he’s about,” Reavis said. “It’s about going in the game and doing what you’re asked to do and making the best of your opportunities. He’s done that when he’s gotten in games because he’s a great talent.”
Brittany Wagner, Franklin’s academic advisor at EMCC, has kept in touch with Franklin as Trickett and EMCC coach Buddy Stephens have. She’s seen how Franklin has responded to his experience over the last year.
While transferring to a junior college, then to an SEC school, all in the midst of the airing of the Netflix documentary Last Chance U (which didn’t exactly show the quarterback in the best light), has been something most other transfers haven’t head to deal with. It’s also, as a result, given Franklin time to grow as a football player and person.
And as competitive as Franklin is, he’s also made close friends and earned the trust and support of his teammates since enrolling in January.
“That competitive fire, he’s always going to have,” Reavis said. “He’s always going to have that swag and animosity about him, but then off the field he’s a genuinely good person.”
For Wagner, who saw Franklin handle his academics and support his teammates at EMCC, his continued evolution at Auburn isn’t surprising.
“I think you have to when you’re thrown into that situation and he doesn’t have four years to play at Auburn,” Wagner said. “You better go in with a mature attitude and be ready to fight for your spot and handle things the right way otherwise it’s not going to work out good for him.”
Still, Franklin’s strength might have little do with his speed or ability to transition suddenly. Franklin realizes he hasn’t done enough to win the starting job and is finding ways to have an impact every time he’s on the field.
“You have to be a mentally strong person to be able to handle competition and stuff like that,” Trickett said. “He’s getting mentally stronger.”
As he continues to gain confidence, Franklin’s mindset remains centered on his two passions: playing and winning.
“Playing is the best motivator for me. I love playing in front of people. I love to perform. I feel like the more opportunities I get, the more I’m going to be able to do positive things,” Franklin said. “Just keep playing my game. Take it when it’s there. Just try to not do too much. Whenever the opportunity presents itself, I’m going to take advantage of it. That’s just my mindset. That’s how I always play the game. If I get more opportunities, as long as win, that’s all I care about to be honest.”