Technically, Missouri quarterback James Franklin came back two weeks ago against Kentucky.
He played two fourth-quarter series — one ending with a fumble and the other on a punt — handing the ball off on all five snaps late in a 31-point blowout Nov. 9 against the Wildcats.
Of course, Franklin’s true comeback won’t be until 6:45 p.m. Saturday, when he returns to the starting role as the eighth-ranked Tigers tussle with No. 24 Mississippi, needing a win to keep alive hopes for an Southeastern Conference East Division championship.
“He’s excited about getting back, and the team’s excited about having him back,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. “Obviously, I want him to do really well. He’s had some adversity and he’s battled through it. He did it before, and he’s battled through it again.”
Franklin, who missed parts of five games as a junior because of a variety of injuries, hasn’t played — aside from that mop-up duty — since suffering a sprained shoulder in the fourth quarter Oct. 12 at Georgia.
An initial report from ESPN had Franklin finished for the season. But with Missouri, 9-1 overall and 5-1 in the SEC, set for two critical games, Franklin, the Tigers’ senior captain and star quarterback, has been cleared to return without restriction.
“He’s been very sharp,” Missouri associate head coach/quarterbacks coach Andy Hill said. “He threw the ball very effectively in practice. The thing you’re looking for is velocity and reads, things like that. He’s been practicing for three weeks. It’s not like he’s been standing around or over at the library. He’s been taking all the two reps.”
While Franklin resumed throwing in late October, doctors didn’t clear him for contact until after the Kentucky game. He warmed up against the Wildcats as well as the week before against Tennessee but was only available on a limited basis.
“It was more so being safe against Tennessee and Kentucky,” Franklin said. “Throwing-wise, it was good, but taking hits it wasn’t quite ready. This week, I’ll be ready.”
Ready and eager.
“Just talking to him, he was like, ‘I’m ready to get back out there, I can’t wait,’ ” senior cornerback E.J. Gaines said. “He’s a leader on this team, and he’s definitely ready to go.”
Franklin’s teammates are just as eager for his return.
“It means a lot,” senior wide receiver L’Damian Washington said. “He’s a senior and a guy that I love to see on the field. Not taking anything away from (Franklin’s backup, redshirt freshman) Maty (Mauk), but James is a guy I came in with and a guy I definitely didn’t want to see an injury take him out of his senior season. To see him back is great.”
Missouri used the bye week to get in a few extra practices in preparation for Mississippi. It was a chance for Franklin, who has completed 132 of 195 passes for 1,577 yards with 14 touchdowns and three interceptions, to heal a bit more — and also to knock off some rust at the same time.
“He’s just got to get a lot of reps this week,” Tigers offensive coordinator Josh Henson said. “The more he reps and more he practices, the sharper he’ll be.”
Washington, for one, expects to see Franklin at his best. He knows how much returning to the lineup means to his quarterback.
“That’s why I’m so excited about Saturday, he’s going to have a great game,” Washington said. “I know he’s eager to get back out there. He’s itching and he’s hungry. He wants it bad.”