GAINESVILLE —When Feleipe Franks returned to Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on Saturday night, the reaction from Florida fans was predictable.
What else would you expect for an ex-Gators quarterback who shushed this home crowd twice in one game?
Although the harsh welcome he received as Arkansas' starter was understandable, it was also unfortunate. His strained relationship with the fan base shouldn’t overshadow the on-field impact he had on his now-former program. He was a central figure in the turnaround that has the No. 6 Gators on a fast track to the SEC championship.
Although Franks arrived as a big-armed, four-star recruit with an NFL frame, he didn’t immediately live up to the hype. As a redshirt freshman in 2017, he threw almost as many interceptions (eight) as touchdowns (nine). Not even a last-second bomb to beat Tennessee could keep him from becoming a message-board lightning rod.
Some of the criticism was fair. A lot of it wasn’t.
It’s not Franks' fault that UF’s limited quarterback room forced him into action before he was ready. It’s also not his fault that his offensive line was a wreck, or that coach Jim McElwain was cracking on his way out the door.
Regardless, Franks' early struggles created a rough reputation he could never shake — one that, unfortunately, overshadowed all the good things he did next.
In his first season under Dan Mullen, Franks had the nation’s third-biggest jump in passing efficiency and accounted for 31 touchdowns (tied for the seventh-most ever at UF). His 2019 numbers were even better before his Gators career ended with an ankle injury at Kentucky.
Beyond the stats, Franks was a beloved leader in the locker room. As he lay on the ground at Kroger Field last September, his teammates flocked around him to show their support.
And even though he had already entered the transfer portal, Franks returned for one more special night with his soon-to-be-former team at last season’s Orange Bowl.
“Everyone’s close to him,” UF running back Malik Davis said.
Franks earned their respect through his dedication and play. Sure, his passion boiled over sometimes. But that fire also sparked the transformation of a program from a four-win team into one that finished seventh nationally and won the 2018 Peach Bowl (where he was the offensive MVP).
“He helped the turnaround of the program to make that happen,” Mullen said.
Mullen credits Franks for helping build a foundation that has the Gators back where they should be, as a top-10 team in the College Football Playoff picture.
A team doesn’t drastically improve the way UF did in Mullen’s first year without buy-in from its incumbent quarterback. Franks' years-long battle with Kyle Trask pushed Trask’s development into one of the best passers in the nation.
That’s not to say Franks was perfect in his four years at UF. He wasn’t. His decision-making wasn’t great, and he let the criticism get to him when he shushed the Gators' crowd twice in a 2018 comeback win over South Carolina.
In an interview with Arkansas reporters this week, Franks sounded more mature — about how to handle fans and everything else.
“I think wisdom comes through experience, not age, in my personal opinion,” Franks said.
Franks' experience at UF gave him a lot to learn from. The lows of his dreadful first start in the ’17 opener against Michigan and getting booed (repeatedly) on his home field. The highs of going 2-0 against Tennessee and earning revenge against the Wolverines in the Peach Bowl.
Franks' rocky tenure ensures he’ll never be as beloved in Gainesville as Tim Tebow or Steve Spurrier. But he left the program better than he found it; the top-10 team he faced Saturday night might not be in the playoff mix without the foundation he laid.
It’s a shame the socially distanced fans didn’t think that way when Franks took the field from the opposing sideline. Because Franks didn’t deserve to be booed.
He deserved to be thanked.