Will Franklin is situated in front of a helicopter at the University Health Center. The Tiger wide receiver has arrived slightly later than the agreed-upon 6 p.m. meeting time.
The team is in its final day of preparation for a road game against the Mississippi Rebels. As quickly as the senior pass catcher arrives, the cameras start clicking with picture after picture of the man nicknamed "The Helicopter."
Franklin takes the attention in stride, this being the second photo shoot he has ever done. The first one was just a family photo shoot, but that still counts for him.
Add that to the all-day shoot he did with quarterback Chase Daniel for the Tiger football “Unleashed” commercials and this is becoming routine, even smooth for Franklin.
Smooth also describes the mild-mannered Franklin off the field. He is an admitted R&B music fan — a genre known for the soothing voices used by its most famous singers and the dominating theme of love. However, Franklin said his first love was basketball. His athleticism and vertical leaping ability prompted basketball coach Floyd Irons to give him the nickname of the “helicopter” as a student at Vashon High School in St. Louis.
“My former coach Irons came up with it because I could jump real high and it just kind of stuck,” he said.
His skills on the basketball court and in pads naturally brought the attention of college recruiters looking to use his skill set, including then first-year head coach Gary Pinkel and receivers coach Andy Hill.
Franklin had only played two years of high school football when Hill came calling, but it was enough for Hill to offer Franklin a scholarship midway through his junior year.
Despite not having played a snap that previous season, Franklin accepted the offer and was quick to show the recognition off to his peers with pride.
“I carried that scholarship around with me everywhere I went and showed it to everyone that I knew,” he said. “Just showing people that I got a scholarship offer, and I didn’t even play that season.
A changed man
The act was unusual for the normally laid-back Franklin. His college experience of four years has naturally matured Franklin’s game and his attitude. Franklin’s production has increased with every year, highlighted by an injury-shortened 2006 campaign where he collected 829 yards and six touchdowns on 48 receptions.
Hill was Franklin’s primary recruiter out of high school as well as Franklin’s position coach. He has seen the change first hand.
“Him being a senior and seeing that improvement is so impressive to me,” Hill said. “His maturity and leadership are just some of the things that make him a joy to be around.”
‘Hard to leave’
Franklin’s breakout 2006 garnered him an honorable mention to the All-Big 12 team, but also led him to think about his professional future a little sooner than he, or others, might have liked.
Without much fanfare, Franklin sought evaluation from scouts for the 2007 NFL draft.
Looking for some financial stability for his growing family (he has a daughter named Aniyah), Franklin left the evaluation process knowing that he would most likely fall to the third round.
Franklin credits Pinkel for allowing him to explore the option.
Pinkel told him that if he was projected as a first-round pick, he should make the leap to the NFL.
Consulting his family, coaches and teammates, Franklin quickly weighed the guaranteed money against the loyalty he felt to the program and the Tigers’ potential for the 2007 season.
The answer became clear.
“Everyone was telling me to leave, leave, leave but what we had here was hard to leave,” Franklin said.
Franklin’s return makes him the centerpiece of a receiver group with seven players who will see significant playing time.
Franklin’s experience has allowed him to mentor some of the younger pass catchers such as his understudy at the X-receiver position, Jared Perry.
Perry has referred to Franklin as “like a brother” yet realizes that the competition with him helps bring out his own best effort.
“Right now, I’m just learning to read coverages and run my routes and whenever he needs a spell I’m there to help him,” Perry, a sophomore, said.
Franklin is also pushed by the youthful influx of receivers and knows they push him too.
As someone who speaks when he feels it’s necessary, that influx has brought out the leadership quality.
“He (receivers’ coach Hill) told me it was going to take time for it to come out,” Franklin said. “Now I am the guy who can say the things that will help us as a wide receiver group.”
A mentor for others
Franklin sees himself in some of the younger receivers, particularly Perry, Danario Alexander and Jeremy Maclin. That similarity is what gives Franklin the ability to push them.
“I do all I can to help those guys and it’s something I want to before I leave here,” Franklin said.
Ultimately, Franklin is optimistic about his final go-round as a Missouri Tiger. He plays down his impact on the program in a typically low-key manner.
But having already made three trips to the endzone in this still young season, the ever-mellow Franklin is hopeful his play on the field will bring the kind of receiving talent in the future that will make the transition easy once he moves on to the next level.
Or maybe even smooth.
“The talent level as the receivers is not just in one person but in several and that is something that will get bigger,” he said.