COLUMBIA, S.C. – There are no moral victories in the SEC.
Florida’s 28-20 loss to South Carolina drops the Gators to 3-6 and ensures a losing season and no bowl game for the second time in five years. That’s unacceptable for Florida and is part of why a new coach is on the way for 2018.
But I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention something that I saw when rewatching the game. Feleipe Franks is getting better.
The raw statistics don’t necessarily show it. After all, Franks ended the game 10 of 25 for 174 yards and an INT. And he certainly had his share of headscratchers.
But he also made some really nice throws. And looking deeper into the film shows a quarterback who is starting to get to his second and even third reads.
South Carolina came into the game with a simple plan. They were going to make a Gators quarterback beat them. To accomplish that, Will Muschamp had his defense play exclusively cover-1. This coverage allowed the Gamecocks to bring an extra safety into the box for run support, and Florida was unwilling to run against the look (9 carries for 59 yards for Lamical Perine and Mark Thompson).
Why the Gators’ offense decided to avoid giving the ball to its running backs who were averaging more than 6.5 yards per carry is a question for its offensive coordinator. But what that meant was that the offense’s ability to move the ball fell on the QB. The question then was whether the QB was up for the task?
The answer was a resounding no for starting QB Malik Zaire. Zaire finished 7 of 14 for 49 yards, but anybody who watched the game saw it was worse than that. Take away the 23-yard screen pass to Kadarius Toney and Zaire only passed for 26 yards. There was just no zip on his passes, and he wasn’t going through his progressions before abandoning the pocket.
After Zaire injured his knee, Franks came into the game. The last time Gators fans saw Franks, he was putting up a 7 of 19 performance for 30 yards against Georgia. But more than that, Franks looked spooked, unwilling or unable to let the ball fly.
The same thing happened against Texas A&M. Franks did not appear confident enough to push the ball downfield against the Aggies after he threw an interception in the end zone into double coverage.
Whether it was sitting the previous two weeks or confidence gained by moving the ball when he came in last week against Missouri, this Franks was a different QB. He still made a ton of mistakes, but they were mistakes of aggression.
Three of his completions were on slants, and two of them appeared to be run-pass option plays. Franks had to read the linebacker and then pull the ball to throw the slant or hand the ball off. Because of South Carolina’s coverage, the slants were open, and Florida saw much of its success in the passing game on those plays.
Those plays work because of Franks’ arm strength. Zaire just doesn’t have the arm to make those throws and fit them in against one-on-one coverage. It’s not a coincidence that the first time Florida hit a slant was on a 37-yard pass to Josh Hammond on the first drive after Franks came in.
Franks didn’t read them perfectly. On the touchdown drive at the end of the first half, South Carolina switched from cover-2 to cover-1 late, and Franks gave the ball to the running back on third-and-7. You could tell he screwed up because a Florida coach – it looks like Jajuan Seider – was ticked on the sideline. Looking at the film, the Florida receivers were running routes, not blocking. I think Seider was upset because Franks needed to throw the ball.
But Franks followed that up with a beautiful throw over the middle on fourth down to Powell. He had to stand tall in the pocket and patiently wait for Powell to come across the formation. Again, this isn’t terribly complicated. But it required Franks to show patience in the pocket that he hasn’t really shown all year.
One of his aggressive mistakes came early in the fourth quarter. It was second-and-22 after a sack and penalty. Franks stepped up in the pocket and threw to Josh Hammond deep down the middle. But throwing deep down the middle is a no-no against a cover-1 look. Still, this isn’t a throw Franks would have attempted his last two times out.
And he learned his lesson. On the very next play, he went deep outside to Mark Thompson and missed. On the next drive, he went deep outside to Tyrie Cleveland and missed. Finally on the next drive with less than four minutes left in the game, he threw deep to the outside and had both Thompson and tight end Moral Stephens wide open.
That play was extra impressive because Franks has kept his eyes down when scrambling pretty much all year. But on this one Franks saw the man coming open, stopped in front of the line of scrimmage and threw a nice pass that the two Gators got to fight over.
On the final drive, Franks completed a little 6-yard dump-off pass to Brandon Powell. It’s something that most fans probably complained about, since it came on the heels of a sack that made it second-and-17. But what those fans may not have noticed was that Powell was Franks third read. He surveyed the field, saw his primary and secondary reads were covered, and got what he could.
Feleipe Franks couldn’t do that two weeks ago. He hasn’t done it all year. But he did it on a potential game-tying drive, on the road in a game where he didn’t get starter’s reps all week.
The game is still moving fast for Franks. But you can see – moment by moment – that it is starting to slow down for him. He’s starting to move through his progressions. He’s starting to trust his arm to fit the ball in rather than holding onto the ball for a sack. He’s made the correct pre-snap read most of the year, but against South Carolina he was making some decisions post-snap that he hasn’t shown previously.
None of this is to say Franks will be a star. After all, he was just 10 for 25. But the Florida receivers didn’t help him very much, particularly on the drop by Freddie Swain that would have continued a drive in the fourth quarter. And his 174 yards passing were more than any of his last four games.
What it does mean is that Franks should start the rest of the year, regardless of the health of Malik Zaire’s knee. Yes, he’s going to make mistakes. But he also showed enough that he is going to be a player for the starting job next season and can use the reps.
Two weeks ago it was reported that prior to the Missouri game that Franks told head coach Randy Shannon that he thought he was better than Zaire. Well, the past two games have seemed to bear that out. Franks has outplayed Zaire. He has made better decisions. And he has stood in the pocket and taken a pounding while still attempting to deliver the ball.
Matt Corral – or somebody else not currently on the roster – may be the QB for the Gators next year. But I’m impressed by the way Feleipe Franks has continued to learn and get better after getting benched. Some players would have moped. Some would have started figuring out where they were going to transfer.
Franks went to work, and it shows.