Film Room: Gators will need best- and smartest- game of Feleipe Franks’ career to beat Georgia

Show us what you’ve got, Feleipe.

Yesterday, our Josh Wheeler provided an excellent breakdown of the identities of both Florida and Georgia in a film room session complete with GIFs and stats galore. Today, I add to that with another film room session that focuses on the most important position of this week’s Cocktail Party: the Florida QB.

For all the issues Feleipe Franks has shown this season, it’s not deniable to say that he’s improved from the disaster he went through in 2017. The team around him has too, of course, and it’s even arguable that the Gators are winning in spite of him and not because of him- but he is a better quarterback than he was in a year ago.

Now, though, comes his greatest test.

LSU gave Franks fits, holding him to just a 44% completion percentage and luring him into throwing a truly gross interception into triple coverage. Franks did some good things in that game, too, but the sum of his performance against the Tigers was a C, maybe a C+ at best. Now he’ll face a Georgia defense that’s comparable to the purple and gold clad one that held him in check three Saturdays ago. The Bulldogs’ defense is not only an expertly run defense by Kirby Smart and Mel Tucker, it’s also fast, physical and emotionally bruised right now after taking a serious ego check in a 36-16 loss to LSU last weekend- and for Franks, that’s a dangerous combination.

All the heat that Franks takes boils down to three main worries that his play elicits, and he’s going to have to not elicit them on Saturday.

First, Franks has a propensity for firing inaccurate lasers in the general vicinity of his receivers. By itself, this does nothing particularly detrimental; reading that sentence probably conjures up mental GIFs of a pass being thrown to nobody in particular on a mixup between the QB and the receiver, resulting in the ball skipping on the turf. But that isn’t the issue. The far more dangerous result of such a misguided missile is that the receiver won’t have time to react to such a speeding bullet, will only be able to deflect it with a hand or shoulder pad, pop the ball high in the air, and sit it on an invisible ledge for a defender to casually pull it down and intercept it. This nearly cost Florida the Tennessee game last year.

The worst variation of the tip drill that results from Franks throwing the ball too hard and off target is when you add the component of him throwing the ball too hard and off target into an area he should never throw it to to begin with, like in this example against Tennessee. But as you can see from the below play against FSU, it will be an issue regardless if he throws it to an open receiver.

Most problematic for me is that this issue that Franks displayed last year, despite all his improvements since then, is still happening this year. Watch what happens when Franks launches a rocket into a cluster of targets in Starkville. More people in the area means more body parts, meaning more swinging limbs to potentially alter the trajectory of the ball. And since the defense is naturally facing the direction the ball is coming from while the offense is facing the other way and has to turn their heads just to look at it, the tip drill favors the defense.

And this isn’t something he does every now and then; there’s literally at least one of these every game, which means he did it as recently as his last game, against Vanderbilt. This time, it was running back LaMical Perine who (understandbly) couldn’t find the handle and redirected the ball skyward. Thankfully, no Commodore defender was able to take advantage of it.

But that’s not even my primary worry with Franks. That distinction belongs to his inability to throw more than four routes on the route tree with any consistency, and they’re the four simplest routes: screens, slants, curls and go’s. However, with any route that sees the receiver cut outward (toward the sideline) or diagonally more than a few yards past the line of scrimmage, Franks seems in over his head. Let’s go back to the Vanderbilt game for a look at how Franks handled a back shoulder fade near the end of the first half.

First of all, nobody’s buying the play action. Yes, Florida has a timeout left here, but after a huge play to Perine that left seven seconds on the clock, everybody knows that the Gators are calling a play with the intention of getting into the end zone. This feels like more of a coaching mistake than on Franks, but while we’re here we may as well point it out. But this isn’t just a badly thrown ball. This is as badly as you can possibly miss your receiver without it looking like you’re trying to throw the ball away. Could it have been thrown worse? Sure, Franks could have lofted it ahead of his receiver for an easy interception, and he did not. It’s possible that this is where Franks meant to throw the ball, and thus threw it on target, but that’s even worse: a back shoulder throw with seven seconds to go in the half has to be thrown over the black paint in the end zone, or it accomplishes nothing other than sharpening the angle for kicker Evan McPherson.

And that throw is by no means an outlier. In large part because of his struggles to throw out routes, Franks locks his eye on his primary target when it’s designed to cut away from him. Because of his lack of comfortability with throwing these routes, he laser focuses on them. Which the defense picks up on, and that’s how you get a linebacker cutting in front like this.

In general, Franks appears to get easily confused by coverages when his primary receiver (who he rarely takes his eye off of) is running a route outside of the tackle box- and worse, this is where Franks’ inaccuracy really rears its ugly head. Watch what happens when he gets mixed up on this corner route to Josh Hammond against Kentucky.

Lastly, there’s my worry about what happens when Franks is harassed. Sure, most quarterbacks are more liable to mess up with a guy in their face, but there are ways to mitigate the damage without giving the ball away. Just take the sack, dude. And whatever you do, don’t float a dying turkey into triple coverage down the middle of the field because…

…that’s an interception waiting to happen.

To his credit, Franks has cut down on these kinds of errors from a year ago. But the key phrase is cut down on, not completely eliminated. He’s still liable to do this if a defense gets in his face. There was also the time he felt the blind side pressure against Vanderbilt, which was good. It was what he did in response to feeling that pressure that was bad.

No quarterback who stands 6’6 or taller should ever have passes tipped at the line of scrimmage. Franks was trying to fit the ball in low to Van Jefferson to make a diving catch, which is actually what you’re supposed to do in this case… if the war in the trenches between the two lines isn’t directly in the path of the flight of the ball. How Franks thought he was going to clear the mass of humanity at the line of scrimmage and fit the ball in at ankle height to a diving receiver ten yards away is beyond me, but that’s the kind of decision Franks makes when he’s being pressured.

So now the question becomes: how does Franks win the game for Florida?

The real answer is that he probably doesn’t. That’s not to say the Gators have no path to victory- they absolutely do- but it won’t come through him. There is a way for Franks to not lose the game, though, and let his teammates and coaches win the game. I’ll go into the latter piece of that tomorrow or Friday, but here’s how Franks can quarterback his team to a win over Georgia.

The main improvement I’ve seen with Franks from last year is that he’s improved his accuracy on slants and swing passes. The quick slant route has worked for Florida this year to varying extents, sometimes for simple ten yard gains…

…and sometimes for touchdowns.

The success with this slant route is due to the simplicity of it. Defensive backs are much more worried about getting burned behind them and on the sidelines. A slant route is one of the very few routes that puts the receiver in the middle of the field, where the linebackers are naturally positioned, so the DB has natural help there in terms of making the tackle and preventing a catastrophe. But it’s also one of the easiest passes to complete because the linebackers aren’t exactly the best at covering the receivers pre-launch of the ball.

Franks has also had success throwing swing passes to the outside. His receivers seem to be overjoyed at the prospect of blocking for each other.

Watch this teamwork between C’yontai Lewis, who throws the nasty block behind the line of scrimmage, Tyrie Cleveland, who stonewalls the cornerback five yards past the line of scrimmage, and Josh Hammond, who uses that help to pick up seven yards per block.

Then there’s the screen pass to a running back that works like a charm if the defense isn’t defending against exactly that. Running backs are the best ball carriers on your team. Give them the football in space, bypassing the line of scrimmage they usually have to navigate through, and allow the vision they were recruited for having find the holes in the secondary.

My biggest fear is that Georgia knows all this, too, and will defend against it. If Mel Tucker takes away the routes that Franks is confident in throwing, it will be up to Franks to make the throws he has not demonstrated confidence in throwing. And while the Gators can game plan around Franks, they can only do so to an extent. Dan Mullen and Brian Johnson may be able to limit what Franks has to do, but there’s no hiding him.

And so if Florida is to raise the final toast at this year’s Cocktail Party, Franks is going to have to do things he has not demonstrated much confidence in doing. To predict Franks to come out and light the Bulldogs up would be nothing short of crazy. This game has a history of craziness, though, so who knows?

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