COLUMBIA — His handshake is firm, the confident grip of someone who’s just achieved the goal he’s been working toward for months, even years.
On Saturday night, Missouri’s backup quarterback James Franklin saw his first minutes of playing time at the collegiate level. Although Franklin’s play was more of a controlled effort to not run up the score than a breakout performance, the freshman said that it felt good to get in the game and show himself that he could play at a new level.
“I think it was a good experience for him,” head coach Gary Pinkel said. “You know, get out, and I use the term ‘get a little dirty.’”
Franklin, whose speech was peppered with “yes ma’am” and “no, sir,” was the picture of calm excitement after the game. Going six for eight for 25 yards, the young quarterback scored one rushing touchdown and fumbled twice. He knew his performance had been acceptable—he gave himself a grade of C+ overall—but he was also more than aware of what he must do to improve in a more competitive game situation.
“You want to get some experience, you know, get in the flow of things so that everything’s not as pressured when I go in,” Franklin said. “If that’s the case, then I’ll be happy to do that.”
Pressured was probably the adjective that least described the situation when Franklin entered the game in the third quarter, with Missouri holding a 43-0 lead over McNeese State. Franklin said that he did not feel nervous coming into the game, though the noise of the sea of gold-decked fans sandwiched into the student section mere yards from his left side did startle him.
“The first play when I went out there, I kind of looked around at the crowd a little more than I needed to,” Franklin said.
The only game-related pressure that Franklin felt, however, was to try to avoid running up the score. Pinkel said that he wanted Franklin to work on managing the clock, and in the fourth quarter the team snapped the ball with five seconds left on the play clock each time.
“We were a little hesitant to throw the football because I didn’t want to score,” Pinkel said. “I’m not into humiliating anybody, so we worked to get the game over with. I wish I had that problem every week.”
Franklin’s job was not as easy as it might at first have appeared. Pinkel and offensive coordinator Dave Yost instructed the freshman quarterback to avoid passing the ball in order to decrease the chances of another Missouri touchdown, but Franklin still needed to strive for positive yardage.
“It’s a pretty good feeling,” Franklin said. “I mean, we still want to go out there, not to rack up the points, but we still want to get positive yards. So going out there, I just need to execute the plays and run them well and do my job.”
Pinkel said that he remembers similar situations when he was an assistant at the University of Washington and its head coach, Don James, would tell him not to let the offense score. He acknowledged how difficult it could be to avoid the end zone, and Franklin proved him correct when he scored on an eight-yard rush in the third quarter.
When asked about his rush, some of Franklin’s calm evaporated. Although he seemed to always be smiling, the young quarterback’s grin widened as he discussed the play. When he started to run, he said, he was aware of how close he was but not that he would necessarily score. About halfway through the rush, though, he realized that his path to the end zone was clear, and he knew he was going to score.
Franklin even maintained his smile when he discussed the low points of his evening: his two fumbles.
“The first one, I guess I think I’m still in high school where I don’t get hit that hard,” Franklin said, laughing. “I was running and all the sudden it just came out.”
The second fumble was less noticeable, and occurred on a poorly executed handoff. It was these two plays that caused Franklin to lower his self-assessment of the performance, and he knows what he needs to do in future games.
“Something I need to work on is just holding onto the ball, executing the offense and making better reads,” Franklin said.
When outlining his strengths and weaknesses, Franklin gets to the point. He was disappointed with the fumbles, and entering the game in the blowout situation that occurred Saturday night didn’t give him a chance to really experiment with his arm strength and pass placement. But not every game will end in a 50-6 Missouri victory, and Franklin knows that playing in a situation this controlled will be unlikely for the rest of the season.
“Hopefully, I’ll get the cobwebs out early,” Franklin said.