GAINESVILLE, Fla. — For many fans, all they’ve seen of redshirt freshman quarterback Feleipe Franks to this point was his performance in Florida’s Orange & Blue Debut last year.
He hasn’t appeared in an official college game yet, and the Gators’ practices are mostly closed to the media, so that spring game a year ago remains the only extended showcase of his abilities for most.
To that point, Franks surely would like another chance at a better impression.
The big-armed, second-year quarterback is far removed from finishing 5-of-11 passing for 58 yards, 1 touchdown and 3 interceptions in the 2016 spring game and has built up plenty of momentum this past month. He’s seized his opportunity while competing for the Florida starting job and will be the spotlight attraction as the Gators conclude their spring session Friday night before a large crowd inside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium and a national television audience on the SEC Network (7:30 p.m. ET).
“I’m sure he’ll be excited to get out there and redo whatever he did a year ago,” Gators coach Jim McElwain said of Franks. “Like I said, this is a just another piece. It’s not the end-all one way or the other. Let’s face it, the defense is going to know the route combinations and the offense is going to know the coverage shells based on rotations and that kind of stuff. So it’s really not trying to trick anybody as much as let’s see if we can get our second step in the ground, create some movement, win 1-on-1s, those type of things.
“And in Feleipe’s case, make sure he knows what color jersey we’re wearing because he kind of threw it to the other ones I think last year.”
Without further ado, here are five things to watch for in Florida’s 2017 spring game:
5. A lot of talk, time for action from the offensive line
McElwain put the onus squarely on the Florida offensive line when he proclaimed after the Outback Bowl in January that the Gators would be more aggressive and physical up front in 2017.
He then brought in a charismatic and demanding new offensive line coach in Brad Davis, from North Texas, after former position coach Mike Summers left for Louisville.
The Florida linemen have spoken highly of Davis all spring, crediting him with pushing them to another level. Which is all very encouraging to hear, but now the Gators have to show it.
There’s every reason to believe that offensive line finally could be ready to reach another level after two inconsistent seasons of rebuilding the unit under McElwain.
Junior left tackle Martez Ivey and sophomore right tackle Jawaan Taylor are strong foundation pieces and bookends on the line while redshirt sophomore T.J. McCoy made a nice impression at center last year, junior Tyler Jordan brings ample experience wherever he ends up (probably at left guard) and junior Fred Johnson and redshirt freshman Brett Heggie look to be competing for the other guard spot.
Florida will go with a bland playbook Friday night so as to not give away anything to season-opening opponent Michigan, but effort and physicality up front will be non-negotiable for McElwain to feel good about the performance.
4. And on the other side …
McElwain and new defensive coordinator Randy Shannon have emphasized the need to establish a strong pass rush from the defensive end spot.
Nobody on the team had more than 5 sacks last season, with Jabari Zuniga leading in that category and racking up most of those numbers early in the fall.
Zuniga, now a redshirt sophomore, has potential to take another step forward in 2017, but the most intriguing candidate to emerge as another key pass rusher might be sophomore Antonneous Clayton.
Clayton came in as a 5-star recruit last year and never really found his footing as a rookie, finishing with just 3 tackles in 5 games. The reports this spring have been encouraging, though.
It would be even more encouraging if he came out and had a big performance Friday night.
3. Next up for DBU?
A disappointing 40-yard dash time aside, Florida is replacing two legitimate stars at cornerback with Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson moving on to the NFL.
Add in veteran safety Marcus Maye, and the Gators are having to overhaul their secondary in 2017.
The spring game won’t offer a full perspective on how that new puzzle fits together because Florida has six freshmen defensive backs still to arrive in the summer who will be competing for key roles.
In the meantime, the spring has largely been an opportunity for senior Duke Dawson and sophomore Chauncey Gardner to test themselves in the back of that defense.
Dawson is penciled in as a starter at cornerback while shifting over from the nickel role and brings a veteran presence to the position, though he now has more responsibility than he’s had at any point in his collegiate career.
Gardner, on the other hand, is a rising star after picking off 2 passes (1 returned for a touchdown) in the Outback Bowl to win the game’s MVP honors. The coaches haven’t said where he will play in 2017, be it as the other corner, at safety where he finished last season or nickel. He’ll have a pronounced role in the secondary regardless.
The Gators also bring back fifth-year seniors Marcell Harris and Nick Washington at safety, with Harris in particular projected as a leader for the unit.
Maybe Florida won’t be very aggressive offensively Friday night, but the coaches will want to test that rebuilt secondary at least somewhat and see how those guys respond.
2. It’s not just about the QB
When looking for optimism for why Florida’s offense potentially could be much better in 2017 after ranking 107th nationally in scoring (23.9 points per game) and 116th in total offense (344 yards per game) last fall, start with the bevy of playmakers the Gators have surrounding whoever ends up at quarterback.
Junior wide receiver Antonio Callaway has looked terrific this spring and in good rhythm with Franks. While finishing with 54 catches for 721 yards and 3 touchdowns last fall, Callaway spoke frankly prior to the bowl game that he expected more from himself this coming season. His confidence was compelling, and there’s every reason to believe Florida’s top playmaker could be in line for a career year.
What would really help that cause, aside from improved quarterback play, would be a big season from sophomore wideout Tyrie Cleveland to divert some of the defensive attention. After coming in as the No. 2 ranked wide receiver nationally in the 2016 class, according to the 247Sports composite rankings, Cleveland finished with 14 catches for 298 yards and 2 TDs as a rookie. He has stated that he’s far more comfortable in the offense now and looks like a prime breakout candidate.
Then there’s junior Jordan Scarlett (889 rushing yards, 6 TDs) and Florida’s stable of running backs, along with plenty of potential at tight end with veteran returners DeAndre Goolsby and C’yontai Lewis as well as high-upside freshman Kemore Gamble.
In other words, the pieces are in place offensively if the line is better and the quarterback can elevate the whole unit.
“Yeah, we got a chip on our shoulder,” Cleveland said. “Back in the years they had (Tim) Tebow the offense was explosive. We’re trying to get back to that offense, making plays and don’t have to rely on the defense as much.”
1. But yes, the spotlight is on the QBs
Earlier this week, McElwain said the quarterback competition was “sorting itself out” and that he was seeing some separation between Franks and fellow redshirt freshman Kyle Trask.
While McElwain didn’t come out and say it, the safe assumption is that Franks has positioned himself to come out of spring atop the depth chart. He opened the team’s final spring practices leading the first-team offense in the opening “fastball” periods while looking accurate and confident.
He still has plenty to prove, though, both Friday night and through the summer before being handed the keys to the offense.
Making that rough performance last spring — which actually started with 3 interceptions in his first 4 pass attempts — an even more distant memory would be a good next step.
“You take everything away from it. You learn from it, you learn from your mistakes. You go back and look at the film and see what you did wrong and then not do it again. That’s pretty much what you do,” Franks said of that rough 2016 spring game showing.
Trask will get a chance to close the spring strong as well, and veteran quarterback Luke Del Rio is expected to be healthy by summer to work back into the mix, but the opportunity is there for Franks to seize the job.
He says he’s far more comfortable in the offense now than he was then, and it shows.
In the limited portions of practice open to the media, he’s made a strong impression. Doing it on a bigger stage Friday night is another story. As is doing when it matters in the fall.
But one step at a time.
“I’d say I feel a lot more comfortable just under the center, doing everything I did last year now. I just feel a lot more comfortable. A ton more,” he said.