GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida quarterback Feleipe Franks looks to make his third crack at Kentucky one to remember.
Not that he ever will forget the first two meetings against the Wildcats — games that ended in an unceremonious benching for Franks in 2017 and a historic loss for his Gators last season.
By focusing on what lies ahead and having perspective, Franks, a redshirt junior, has put past struggles behind him and grown into a winning quarterback for No. 9 UF (2-0).
“I remember a bunch of disappointments,” he said. “But I don’t think that defines me as a person or who I am as a person or anything.”
The Gators’ last two meetings with Kentucky, though, were season-defining moments.
A week after Franks’ 63-yard touchdown on the final play beat Tennessee, former coach Jim McElwain replaced him during the third quarter in Lexington. Oft-injured backup Luke Del Rio rallied the Gators with 13 points during the final 11 minutes for a 28-27 win.
The following week, Del Rio broke his collarbone against Vanderbilt, returning Franks to a starting role. The flip-flop continued a quarterback shuffle that shattered Franks’ confidence, saw three different starters and ended with McElwain’s ouster.
New coach Dan Mullen arrived to eventually re-energize and instill confidence in Franks. A five-touchdown first half to open the 2018 season against Charleston Southern, though, was followed by a 27-16 loss at home to Kentucky, ending the Gators’ nation-leading winning streak of 31 games in a series.
Franks was not to blame for UF’s stunning defeat; Kentucky rushed for 302 yards. He even led UF to a 99-yard touchdown drive to cut the lead to 21-16. But needing a Tennessee-like miracle, Franks fumbled on the final play and Kentucky returned it 30 yards for a touchdown, sealing a bitter defeat that led Mullen to call his team soft.
“I think it was an eye-opener,” Franks said.
UF responded with five straight wins, including against ranked foes Mississippi State and LSU. Franks and the Gators had to bounce back again following losses to Georgia and Missouri, but have won six straight entering Saturday’s visit to Lexington.
Franks is coming off his most efficient performance during the winning streak, finishing 25-of-27 passing for 270 yards and two touchdowns for a passer rating of 201 against UT-Martin. Franks’ 69-yard touchdown pass to Van Jefferson was as good a throw as he has made as a Gator.
“Nothing can top the Hail Mary,” senior receiver Josh Hammond said.
Hammond did point out, though, how the hook-up with Jefferson showed Franks’ improvement. He surveyed his options on the field, rather than locking into a primary target — a difficult skill for many quarterbacks to develop.
The challenge was intensified by the fact UT-Martin lined up in a 3-3-5 formation and routinely dropped eight players into coverage.
“For him to look the safety off, come back, throw the deep ball to Van just shows that he is making his reads,” Hammond said. “He is that guy who we look to to make those plays and you know UT-Martin plays a very exotic defense where they drop a bunch of guys, so he was gonna have to be very sound with his eyes, looking guys off before he let balls go.
“He was able to do that, we were able to execute at a high level and he had a really good game.”
Franks looks to build on the performance against a better team during the Gators’ first road game in 2019.
While the Wildcats (2-0) are a big step up in competition from UT-Martin, they replace 14 of 22 starters from a 10-win team.
No position lost more than the Wildcats’ secondary. All four starters and the top backup are gone.
Franks, along with the most talented receiving group at UF this decade, will look to capitalize.
And he doesn’t need his lackluster track record against Kentucky as motivation.
“If it motivates somebody, then you’re in the wrong business. That’s just me personally,” he said. “Either you have a competitive fire, or you don’t. You want to go out there and play every Saturday, or you don’t. You want to win, or you don’t. It’s black and white. I don’t think there’s any gray area in being a competitor. Either you have the passion, or you don’t.”
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