GAINESVILLE — Florida quarterback Feleipe Franks wanted to do something to remember his injured teammate and mentor at halftime of Saturday's 38-24 win over Vanderbilt.
So he took a marker and wrote one word on his skin, underneath his left wristband.
"You want to play for somebody," Franks said.
And Franks played for Luke Del Rio — the man he has battled and learned from since January 2016. With Del Rio set to undergo season-ending surgery on his collarbone Monday, Franks will have to play for him the rest of the season.
It's his time now. There's no going back.
Franks always looked like UF's quarterback of the future. He has the size (6-foot-6, 219 pounds). He has the talent (a former four-star recruit and U.S. Army All-American). He has the arm strength (See: the 63-yard touchdown pass that beat Tennessee).
But through three games, he didn't look like UF's quarterback of the present. The Gators (3-1, 3-0 SEC) pulled him in the season-opening 33-17 loss to Michigan. Then they pulled him last week at Kentucky to allow Del Rio to lead the miraculous 13-point comeback win.
Then they formally relegated him to Del Rio's backup against the Commodores (3-2, 0-2). It was a decision that could have devastated the psyche of a young quarterback.
"I don't think there was any kind of emotional breakdown," Franks said, "but the guys kept me up."
They had to, because the old football cliché is true: The backup is only one play away from becoming the starter.
That play happened with five minutes left in Saturday's first half, when defensive lineman Dare Odeyingbo drove one of Del Rio's two surgically repaired shoulders into the turf. Del Rio spent a few minutes on the sidelines before heading to the locker room. He didn't return.
And he won't this season, officially handing over the offense — and the team — to Franks.
There are no other options. Notre Dame grad transfer Malik Zaire looked out of sorts as Franks' replacement against Michigan, and UF hasn't adjusted its offense to fit his athleticism. Kyle Trask isn't ready. Neither is Jake Allen. Kadarius Toney is a great change-of-pace option — he rushed three times for 22 yards in the Wildcat formation we'll be seeing more often — but he's not a long-term solution at the position.
Franks might be.
"We've got faith in him," running back Lamical Perine said.
Saturday showed why.
After he was benched at Kentucky for starting the second half with back-to-back three-and-outs, Franks' offense was 4-of-9 on third down and 2-for-2 on fourth down. Perhaps the most impressive part of Franks' performance (10-of-14 for 185 yards with no touchdowns, turnovers or sacks) was what he said in the huddle after Del Rio went down.
"He just took over," right tackle Jawaan Taylor said.
Franks entered with 43 seconds left in the half at his own 25. He went 4-for-6 with a 49-yard bomb to Cleveland. He threw for more yards on that drive (71) than Del Rio had through the first 25 minutes (64). It allowed UF to steal a field goal and tie the score at 17 heading into halftime.
"He doesn't waver," coach Jim McElwain said. "He's very steady in everything he does, and I think it really showed up on that drive."
For UF to be successful, it will have to show up next week against an LSU team Franks initially committed to in high school. And it will have to show up every week after that if this team hopes to somehow remain alive for a third consecutive SEC title.
UF doesn't have a choice. There are no other options.
The Feleipe Franks era has begun.
Contact Matt Baker at [email protected] Follow @MBakerTBTimes.