By The Associated Press
James Franklin during the Murray State on Aug. 31, 2013, in which he passed for 318 yards and rushed six times for 44 yards. Photo by Karen Mitchell
COLUMBIA, Mo. — Missouri quarterback James Franklin says he doesn’t intentionally go against the wishes of his coaches.
When there’s an opportunity to gain a few more yards, he isn’t afraid of lowering his shoulder – even if there’s a heightened chance of incurring an injury.
Franklin knows the consequences of concussions and torn muscles. They marred his junior season, relegating him to the bench for four games and the sideline for parts of others. Now in his final year with the Tigers, he’s met with coaches to discuss altering his running style and sliding more often to avoid absorbing big hits.
Still, Franklin leads the team with 36 rushing attempts for 182 yards and a touchdown. In his last two games, he’s bowled over defenders to preserve second-half leads.
The 6-foot-2, 230-pound native of Corinth, Texas, says his scrambles are calculated decisions based on what the defense is showing him. Coach Gary Pinkel just wants to make sure the leader of his offense stays healthy, but thinks Franklin is making strides toward better protecting himself.
“I can’t say, ‘Don’t scramble,'” Pinkel said. “If he protects himself, he can run a bunch. It helps us. The pressure to defend a quarterback that can run is a tremendous asset that you have, and he has that.”
Franklin sidesteps talking about his running, preferring instead to focus on how he trusts his arms more than his legs, a change from his breakout sophomore season in which he passed for 220.4 yards per game and 21 touchdowns and ran for 75.5 yards and 15 touchdowns.
Last Saturday in a 45-28 win at Indiana, Franklin accounted for a career-high 404 yards of total offense, including a career-best 343 passing yards. He threw two touchdowns passes and two interceptions and added another score on the ground.
It helps that Missouri (3-0) hasn’t played two top-10 teams as it had a year ago through four weeks, but staying healthy has boosted Franklin’s confidence in the throws he can make. Last season, he barely spoke above a whisper at times after losses and admitted to struggling to keep his mind in the right place after reading criticism from fans.
“As far as handling critical situations with a lot of negativity, it’s really helped me to attack it and not really let it bother me,” said Franklin, who still reads every tweet directed his way. “People always say things. You start to doubt yourself. I just gained a stronger mentality not to pay attention to that and just to really let it go and be positive about everything.”
Franklin’s new demeanor hasn’t gone unnoticed. Teammates say he has increased his communication with them, which translates into better results on the field. The Tigers enter their final non-conference game this weekend against Arkansas State (2-2) ranking in the top-10 nationally in total offense (567.0 yards), scoring offense (47.0 points) and third-down conversion (59.6 percent).
“He has more confidence in us,” said receiver Marcus Lucas, who caught 10 passes for 101 yards Saturday. “It’s easier to make plays whenever you’ve got guys who you know will make a play for you.”
A year ago, Missouri limped to a 0-4 start against the Southeastern Conference and finished 2-6 after injuries to Franklin and half of the offensive line. Now with just a week left before conference play, a healthy Franklin insists he’s ready for whatever comes his way, saying the game has slowed down and allowed him to think more efficiently about where and how to throw.
“He found out the reality of the position and the criticism that goes with the position,” Pinkel said. “You get all the accolades, but the other side goes with it, too. And obviously, most of the stuff that happened to him was not his choice. But you learn from it, you become tougher. We all do.”