It took 15 days, 14 practices and two strong scrimmage performances, but on Thursday evening, Missouri coach Gary Pinkel finally did what most long suspected he would do: He named senior James Franklin his starting quarterback.
“James has shown that he’s very capable of leading this team at a high level, and we fully expect him to do that,” Pinkel said in a statement. “He’s really developed as a leader of this offense, and of this team, and we feel he’s ready to be the difference-maker he was before all of the health challenges he dealt with last season.”
In the release, Pinkel also said he is happy with the progress redshirt freshman Maty Mauk has made, and the staff is considering giving Franklin’s top competitor at quarterback some planned series per game to give him experience.
“We have a history with that, and it’s something that has worked very well for us,” Pinkel said. “When Brad Smith was a senior, we had Chase Daniel as a freshman show that he earned a series or two per game, and that was tremendous for his growth. When Blaine Gabbert was in his last year here, James Franklin was a freshman, and we got him some work on a fairly regular basis, and we feel that was instrumental in what he was able to do the next year as a starter.”
The decision brings an end to a quarterback competition that has lingered since the spring, a remnant of a disappointing 5-7 season in which the Tigers were besieged by injuries and failed to reach a bowl game for the first time since 2004.
Franklin, a 6-foot-2, 230-pounder from Corinth, Texas, played a part in those struggles with his performance last season. Following a breakout 2011 in which he accounted for 36 touchdowns and nearly 4,000 yards, he tore the labrum in his throwing shoulder in spring practice. That seemed to set the tone for an injury-riddled junior campaign in which he suffered shoulder and knee injuries that limited his effectiveness and caused him to miss three games.
Pinkel declared the starting position open for spring practice, but Franklin held off Mauk and sophomore Corbin Berkstresser heading into the summer, and has done the same since preseason practice began, a process that even extended to Thursday, when Franklin put together his second straight strong scrimmage performance.
Missouri’s quarterbacks teamed up to complete 64.9 percent of their passes for 560 yards and nine touchdowns on Thursday, but Franklin shone brightest, getting the majority of work with the first-team offense and completing 16 of 21 passes for 189 yards and two touchdowns.
Most important, Franklin committed only one turnover. Though Mauk had fewer bad throws than he did in the first scrimmage and again showed a knack for escaping trouble — scrambling twice for 15 yards — he completed only 12 of 22 passes for 150 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions.
When asked Thursday, Franklin and Mauk both said they did not know when Pinkel would choose a starter.
“The only time I think about the quarterback competition is when you guys ask me,” Franklin said. “Other than that, I don’t really think about it at all. Keeping it in the back of my mind, not worrying about it, just going out and playing the best I can has helped.”
After two scrimmages, Franklin has completed 27 of 40 passes (67.5 percent) for 363 yards, four touchdowns and one interception. Meanwhile, Mauk has completed only 23 of 44 passes (52.3 percent) for 371 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions, but still believes he is making progress.
“The main goal was to get the tempo going and get our guys the ball as quick as I could,” Mauk said.
That appeared to be the goal for all of Missouri’s quarterbacks Thursday, and Pinkel said the group did some good things as a whole, though the 10 sacks they took were unacceptable.
“We’re not throwing into coverage a lot, I think that’s good,” Pinkel said. “I still think there was a sack or two out there where the quarterback has to get rid of the ball. An incomplete pass is sometimes as good as a complete pass if you earn a 7-yard loss … just a lot of little things like that.”
It should also be noted that the secondary was a little thinner than normal without senior cornerback E.J. Gaines, who sat out because of a knee injury. But it’s hard to say the defensive backfield had a good day when MU’s quarterbacks and receivers routinely hooked up for big plays and yards after the catch.
For instance, one of Franklin’s touchdown throws came on a short pass to the right flat to senior L’Damian Washington, who ran through an arm tackle and outraced everybody for a 53-yard touchdown.
It was, to be sure, the kind of play Pinkel now hopes to see Franklin facilitate make throughout the season. If he does, Pinkel’s announcement Thursday evening will be remembered as the official beginning of that journey.
“Obviously, quarterback draws the most attention from media and fans, so we just felt like it made sense to end the speculation since we knew the course we’re taking,” Pinkel said.