GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The plan was for redshirt freshman quarterback Feleipe Franks to stick as the starter in Florida’s second game and build some confidence against a favorable matchup.
The plan now remains for Franks to start Game 2, but the matchup has changed significantly.
Florida coach Jim McElwain confirmed Franks will be his quarterback as the No. 24 Gators host No. 23 Tennessee on Saturday in The Swamp, returning to action after cancelling their clash with FCS foe Northern Colorado last weekend while bracing for Hurricane Irma.
So no more tune-up game, no more clear confidence-builder. Instead, the start of SEC play, a rivalry showdown, another big spotlight for the young QB.
McElwain expects Franks will be ready for all of it.
“Yeah, he should. And I think the one thing there is, it’s the reason you come to the University of Florida. To play in games like that. And this is another opportunity for him,” McElwain said Wednesday.
Franks made his collegiate debut two Saturdays ago in a 33-17 season-opening loss to Michigan, completing 5 of 9 passes for 75 yards before being replaced in the third quarter by graduate transfer Malik Zaire.
After winning the Gators’ preseason quarterback competition, Franks stumbled twice and fumbled twice in the opener, but he looked sharp on his passes with nary a bad decision or bad throw in the limited sample size.
His teammates have been vocally supportive since that performance as well.
“He’s a leader. A natural-born leader. You know, he comes in the huddle fired up every play no matter if we’re losing, winning, third-and-15, third-and-1. He’s always ready to go,” wide receiver Josh Hammond said Wednesday. “I think that’s something that I admire about him that he’s (ready) no matter what. No matter the situation he’s ready to approach it with the same mindset, just wanting to beat it. I think that’s a big thing that he brings to the game and his calmness definitely allows (us) to stay calm and move forward a little bit.”
Said linebacker David Reese: “I feel like he’s a winner. He wants to compete. He’s a competitive guy, so I feel like no role is too big for him. Guys have to stick in games. It’s just Florida. That’s what it is. We’re going to be a young team and we’re just going to have to come and play.”
McElwain has not said whether he’ll work Zaire into the game plan again this week or not, but either way it’s another big stage for the cannon-armed young QB to show his mettle.
The questions aren’t just about Franks’ readiness this week — it’s how do the Gators rally as a group after the compounding matters of their dismal season debut followed by the off-the-field stress of having families in the path of Hurricane Irma last week coupled with the loss of a prime confidence-builder against Northern Colorado and an adjusted practice schedule?
Cornerback Duke Dawson said the Gators practiced Friday and Saturday before returning to the field Tuesday.
“Cramming it in is probably a good way to put it,” McElwain said. “No matter how hard you focused on what was about to come up, as the battery power lasted on our computers or whatever, you’ve got to rely on your offseason breakdowns as well. Our guys are going to go play hard. We are going to put a good thing together to give them an opportunity to play fast and release some of their energies and bent-up frustrations as well as we come out in The Swamp.
“I think our thoughts in this game go a lot farther than the selfish reasons that you play a game, but more so the big-picture reasons you play a game and hopefully give some relief to some people whose lives have been changed forever.”
Tennessee rides in on a much different narrative, one of momentum after a season-opening overtime win over Georgia Tech and a drubbing of FCS foe Indiana State last week.
The Florida players said the right things Wednesday, that any lost opportunities on the game field or practice field won’t undermine their performance Saturday. That missing a chance to dominate an overmatched Northern Colorado team won’t cost the Gators some much-needed confidence.
“No, no, I definitely don’t,” Reese said. “I wish we would have got a chance to play — not just for us, but for the people around Gainesville just to give them something to think about. But unfortunately we didn’t have the chance, but we’re excited that we have the opportunity to this week.”
That will all prove itself on the field Saturday, one or way or another.
McElwain was asked how he gets his team to pivot back to football so immediately after bracing for the fears of Irma just days earlier. He paused while considering his response.
“You know, it’s what we do. It’s in our fabric,” he said. “One of the great lessons you learn in athletics and especially the game of football is sometimes you get knocked down. The measure of a true man is how he gets back up, and that’s what we’re going to do.”
INJURIES: Tight end DeAndre Goolsby practiced Tuesday and “looked pretty good,” McElwain said. He’s expected to be play Saturday. … Linebacker Kylan Johnson is doubtful to play as he deals with a lingering hamstring injury. … Freshman tight end Kemore Gamble (foot/ankle) is also back. … Meanwhile, McElwain had no update on freshman wide receiver James Robinson’s heart condition as he remains out.