GAINESVILLE, Fla. — This is the week everybody gets to see what redshirt freshman quarterback Feleipe Franks can do.
If Florida offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier lets him, that is.
The coaches have determined that Franks gives the Gators the best chance to win at this point, that he’s the most complete of their three options as SEC play starts Saturday in The Swamp against rival Tennessee.
Well, if Franks is the guy, then they need to let him be the guy.
There’s a tendency to want to be careful with rookie quarterbacks, ease them in, limit their risk exposure.
But Florida can’t afford to coddle Franks.
Now more than ever the pressure is on Nussmeier and coach Jim McElwain to deliver a creative and dynamic offensive game plan. It so happens that Franks’ best attribute is a cannon arm that could give defenses fits if unleashed. It so happens the Gators’ best success against Tennessee last year came when Nussmeier let quarterback Austin Appleby attack the Vols downfield in the first half.
Then the Gators got conservative, as they have so often done under Nussmeier. The bland offense that followed opened the door for Tennessee to overcome a 21-point deficit and seize total control of the game.
Sure, Appleby had a costly interception early in the fourth quarter that both helped the comeback and contributed to Nussmeier’s continued reticence to take chances. But it seemed the rest of the season, aside from that 98-yard touchdown pass against LSU, the coaches were gun shy to let Appleby air it out.
This is where the anti-Appleby segment of the fan base rises up in protest. Maybe his penchant for picks justified a staid approach to some degree, but the bottom line is Florida’s offense was hamstrung by its conservative predictability.
As it was in the opener against Michigan two weeks ago.
Granted, the struggles of Florida’s offensive line didn’t allow for much time in the pocket and Franks did throw intermediate downfield passes in the limited time he was in the game. Very precise downfield passes, for that matter. Maybe there was a more aggressive game plan in mind that the Wolverines foiled, as McElwain intimated.
That shouldn’t be a problem this week, though.
Tennessee looks like a solid offensive team with some very real defensive concerns. The Vols ranked 95th last season in total defense (449.2 yards per game allowed) and 72nd in passing defense (230.7 yards per game) and have yet to be truly tested this season by a capable passing attack.
Florida won’t have suspended star receiver Antonio Callaway, but it will have emerging sophomore Tyrie Cleveland and a host of other capable pass catchers. It will have the two slot weapons, Dre Massey and Kadarius Toney, that were expected to be a big part of the offense this fall.
And they have a big-armed 4-star quarterback who has now won separate competitions in the spring and summer for that starting job. It’s time to see what he can really do.
If the Gators are going to be hesitant to put too much on Franks’ plate too soon, then they should have gone with graduate transfer Malik Zaire or 2016 starter Luke Del Rio.
While the fan base has seemingly moved on quickly from Zaire, he’s possesses upside as a dual-threat quarterback who was excellent in two of the three starts he made at Notre Dame. Maybe he’s not up to speed in the offense after joining the Gators in June, but he has poise and potential. And if it’s a game manager the coaches want, then Del Rio is suited for that role with his experience and command.
But there’s no denying Franks’ upside. And for a team starved for offensive production, it would be fun to see the full complement of his abilities on display Saturday against the Vols.
So if the coaches have determined Franks is the guy, then it’s time to let him be the guy.