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Florida spring game: What if Gators’ Kyle Trask didn’t break his foot?

Saturday’s Orange and Blue game would have a much different feel around Feleipe Franks.
Quarterback Kyle Trask (11) winds up to pass during the third quarter of the Orange and Blue Debut at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. (MONICA HERNDON | Times)
Published Apr. 12

GAINESVILLE — When the Gators take the field Saturday for their annual Orange and Blue spring game, there won’t be much drama at quarterback.

No matter what coaches say publicly, the starting job almost certainly belongs to incumbent Feleipe Franks.

But if something broke differently — or didn’t break — Saturday’s competition could have been a lot more meaningful. What if Kyle Trask didn’t break his foot in November?

“I mean, I think about it a little bit,” Trask said. “I know we were both competing to play that week.”

Florida Gators quarterback Kyle Trask (11) carries for a touchdown during the third quarter of the game against the Charleston Southern Buccaneers on September 1, 2018 at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville, Fla. (MONICA HERNDON | Times)

That was South Carolina week, and Trask and Franks were competing in a way they hadn’t since the opener.

Coach Dan Mullen had just pulled Franks after a rough performance against Missouri’s middling pass defense. Trask’s relief appearance graded out comparably in the 38-17 homecoming loss.

Franks’ supposedly long leash snapped.

Mullen and quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson discussed whether to change the division of reps during South Carolina preparation. The quarterback battle that seemed decided in August was back on.

“We’ll see how they perform this week,” Mullen said after the Mizzou defeat. “If there’s a drastic change, we’ll make a change.”

The drastic change wasn’t what UF might have expected. Trask broke his foot in practice. His latest (and maybe last) realistic shot to win the job was over.

“It was very disappointing,” Trask said. “But at the same time, I know everything happens for a reason.”

With Trask sidelined and Emory Jones not yet ready for the full-time job, Franks remained the starter.

Even if the competition never fully materialized, the criticism did. Another week of boos seemed to fuel him that Saturday against South Carolina, which is why he shushed his home crowd twice during the 35-31 win.

Franks called that game the turning point for the team. It might end up as the turning point of his career.

“I think it really started to click for him after the South Carolina game,” receiver Van Jefferson said.

RELATED: Florida Gators’ Feleipe Franks still making noise

Specifically, it started to click after the first shush. Before he brought his finger to his facemask, Franks was completing 56 percent of his passes and averaging 7 yards per attempt with 18 total touchdowns and six interceptions. After it, he completed 64 percent of his throws with 9 yards per attempt, 11 total touchdowns and no interceptions.

The drama from that week allowed him to play angry. The success he had doing so gave him the confidence he needed to play even better.

Those intangibles funneled into the schematic shift: Franks began to run more.

Before South Carolina, Franks had never rushed more than nine times in a game (excluding sacks). He ran a career-high 14 times that week, then 11 times each against Florida State and Michigan.

Feleipe Franks' run game took off starting with the South Carolina win. (BRONTE WITTPENN | Times)

He responded well — both his shushes came after touchdown rushes —and UF’s offense took off with the added threat of a running quarterback. The Gators rallied from 17 down to beat South Carolina, then won their final three games by a combined 106 points to finish seventh in the nation.

“I don’t need a dynamic runner or a great runner,” Mullen said. “You just want somebody who is going to have kind of a toughness edge to him. I think you saw as the year went on, he kind of played with some toughness.”

Franks has continued to show that toughness and edge this spring. He looks ready to keep silencing any doubters by playing with the confidence that comes with being an entrenched starter — a title he might not have, if things had broken differently five months ago.

Contact Matt Baker at mbaker@tampabay.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.

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