COLUMBIA — James Franklin is the Missouri football team's quarterback of the future, and coach Gary Pinkel is giving the Big 12 Conference a preview of things to come.
As the season has progressed, Pinkel has used the freshman more and more at quarterback despite getting better than satisfactory results with junior starter Blaine Gabbert.
No. 15 Missouri (9-2, 5-2)
vs. Kansas (3-8, 1-6)
WHEN: 11:40 a.m.
WHERE: Arrowhead Stadium, Kansas City
RADIO: KTGR/1580 AM, KCMQ/96.7 FM
TV: Fox Sports Net
Missouri has won three of its past four games against Kansas, including two of the past three played at Arrowhead Stadium. A victory would give Missouri a 10-win season for only the fourth time. The Tigers also had 10 victories in 1960 (11-0), 2007 (12-2) and 2008 (10-4).
Franklin isn't coming into games to replace Gabbert, though. He's coming in as a quasi-running back.
In Missouri's past two games, against Kansas State and Iowa State, Franklin has rushed the ball seven times for 27 yards but has attempted no passes. On occasion, Franklin takes the snap from center with Gabbert on the field as a possible-trick-play decoy, but most of the time Gabbert is on the sideline watching.
Pinkel said that bringing in Franklin is not a slight on Gabbert, who Pinkel says is beyond needing in-game coaching. Pinkel said he wants to see Franklin's role in the offense increase, and that playing Franklin makes his team better.
Earlier in the season Franklin saw playing time in blowout games, as is typical for a backup quarterback. Against McNeese State and Miami (Ohio), Franklin completed eight of 10 passes and ran for 27 yards on eight carries.
“I think it was a good experience for him,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. “You know, get out, and I use the term ‘get a little dirty.’”
Franklin wasn't expected to play against Colorado, but Gabbert's hip pointer injury gave Franklin a fiery baptism into Big 12 play.
The freshman was tested with running the Tigers offense in the fourth quarter and was successful. Franklin completed three of four passes for 35 yards including a touchdown, and he ran four times for 37 yards. Franklin could have had another touchdown, but Pinkel told Franklin to take a knee deep in Colorado territory to avoid running up the score.
Franklin's performance laid a groundwork of confidence. Against Oklahoma, Franklin subbed in for Gabbbert with the Tigers on the Oklahoma 3-yard line and ran for a touchdown.
Franklin didn't see action in losses to Nebraska and Texas Tech, and in those games the Missouri offense was stagnant. After the loss in Lubbock, Pinkel said that Franklin's role in the offense would increase, and it has.
“We’ve got to look for solutions, and it’s hard sometimes,” Pinkel said after the loss. “You can’t create a new offense.”
Instead, Pinkel tweaked the Tigers’ game plan against Kansas State, and Franklin was featured in the team’s offense. Battling the stomach flu, Franklin ran the ball twice, including a gain of 17 yards.
Putting Franklin into the game might be new for the Missouri offense, but so far the Texas native's plays have been anything but tricky. After taking the snap Franklin simply runs up the middle of the offensive line. It's the most basic play in the book, but Franklin is averaging 5.2 yards a carry with it.
It's that success that encourages Pinkel to increase Franklin's playing time.
“There’s a little bit of pressure, I guess, but I kind of see it as everyone expects me to become a better quarterback,” Franklin said. “So you get better, you move up, and you get more responsibilities. And now my responsibilities are a little bit stricter.”
The team is using Franklin in a similar fashion to the way Florida used its future starting quarterback Tim Tebow in his freshman year. Tebow spelled starting quarterback Chris Leak in Florida's 2006 national championship season and ran the ball 89 times and averaged 5.3 yards per carry. Tebow only threw the ball 11 times in non-blowout games.
Franklin is yet to throw a pass in the wildcat-like formation, but the Iowa State and Kansas State defenses crowded the line of scrimmage when Franklin entered the game, giving the quarterback ample opportunity to throw against unbalanced coverage. Pinkel said he expects Franklin's playing time to continue to increase, and both Pinkel and tight end Michael Egnew hinted that Franklin's first pass in the new offensive set could happen against Kansas.
"Well, you know, I don't really want to talk about that," Egnew said with a chuckle. "But he can definitely throw it if he has to."