MU’s Franklin working hard to move past last season’s disappointment

More than a decade later, James Franklin still can’t get the taste of salami out of his mouth.

In the fourth or fifth grade, future Missouri quarterback Franklin was shopping with his parents. He remembers stopping at a store, where the family tasted some free samples.

“Ugh, that’s sick!”

James’ reaction earned him an early trip back to the car and a spanking from his father.

“He said ‘Son, when someone gives you something, you don’t disrespect them and say it’s disgusting,’ ” Franklin recalled.

It was a lesson Franklin never forgot last season when Missouri limped to a 5-7 record and missed a bowl game for the first time since 2004. He was criticized and booed. Even his coach, Gary Pinkel, appeared to question Franklin’s toughness, telling a sideline reporter that Franklin “didn’t want to play” after refusing to take a pain-killing shot before a game.

But while Franklin struggled on the field and missed three games because of injuries, his personality never wavered. He didn’t get mad at his coach. He even responded to angry Twitter messages from fans out of courtesy.

“That was the most important thing, showing respect to others,” Franklin said of what his father taught him, “even if it’s disgusting or you don’t like it.”

So in hopes of finding his 2011 form — when he emerged as one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in the nation — Franklin began a three-pronged attack to improve before his senior season. He vowed to become stronger, both physically and fundamentally, and lead a bit differently, too.

“You can see he has his drive back, he has his ambition,” MU quarterbacks coach Andy Hill said. “He just wants to prove to himself, ‘Hey man, I’ve still got it. I’m still James Franklin.’ ”

Tight end Eric Waters could hear the fans talking about his teammate and knew they were wrong.

“It was just difficult,” Waters said. “It was tough seeing all the stuff and all the abuse instead of the support they should have been giving to him, instead of trying to pick him up and lift him up.”

What they didn’t see was the punishment Franklin took in 2011, when he threw for 2,865 yards and 21 touchdowns and rushed for 981 yards and 15 touchdowns. Franklin didn’t miss a game that year despite playing with injuries ranging from broken fingers to aching ribs to a swollen knee.

“It was bad,” Waters said. “All the stuff I’ve seen — the grimaces on his face, barely being able to walk the next day — that guy, he’s one of the toughest people I’ve ever met.”

But that display of toughness didn’t keep the man nicknamed “Tank” from being questioned last season. Franklin, who’s 6 feet 2 and 230 pounds, tore the labrum in his throwing shoulder in the spring, and while he returned in time for preseason camp, he was not the same player after Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones smashed into him during the second half of a 41-20 loss on Sept. 8.

Franklin sat out the next week’s game against Arizona State because of an inflamed bursa sac in his shoulder. Pinkel told an ESPN sideline reporter his quarterback refused a shot of Toradol, a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug that treats pain and inflammation.

“(Our) medical people make those decisions and I’m honest about things,” said Pinkel, when asked recently if he regretted saying Franklin didn’t want to play. “I just say what I say, you know?”

Franklin later said he decided against the shot due to a personal choice, one similar to his refusal to curse or drink. While he worried about what his teammates thought at the time, in retrospect, he doesn’t regret the decision.

“Oh, no sir, I’m never gonna want to get anything to help me perform,” Franklin said recently. “If I can’t go, I can’t go. It’s not that I don’t want to play out there or anything. I just I don’t want to take anything.”

While there were a few high points — like Missouri’s 51-48 four-overtime win at Tennessee — Franklin threw for only 1,562 yards and 10 touchdowns while rushing for just 122 yards and no TDs.

“Whenever bad plays would happen, I would kind of get down on myself,” Franklin said. “Like the Florida game overthrow after overthrow, interception after interception, I just kept getting down on myself and not really moving on from that.”

But what hurt Franklin more was that two of Missouri’s most disappointing losses — at home against Vanderbilt and Syracuse — happened when he was forced to leave because of a knee injury and a concussion. Win either one of those games, and MU qualified for a bowl and, perhaps, finished with a winning record.

So this offseason, he decided to put in the work necessary to take his fate in his own hands.

“To miss three games when we only play 12 or 13 a year, that’s a big chunk of the season,” Franklin said. “It was tough to just sit out those games. I definitely don’t want to do that again because I want to be there for my teammates.”

Franklin’s plan started with his health. The offseason supplied plenty time to heal, but he resolved to be smarter about running out of bounds and sliding in 2013.

He also put an emphasis on building up his body in areas where he often takes punishment.

“I’ve seen him working more on his upper-body strength this year, and I think it’s going to help,” strength coach Pat Ivey said. “None of that helps with throwing the ball, but what it does help is protecting your joints in collisions.”

As a result, Ivey recently said Franklin is healthy coming into the camp for the first time since 2011.

“I’m really happy with him,” Ivey said. “His desire to be the best he can be is inspiring and impressive I see him in here working extra on days he’s not even supposed to be in here.”

Franklin has long been superb at jumping rope, which helps with his footwork. But injuries affected his mechanics last season, sometimes hurting his accuracy.

So this offseason, he spent some time in California with noted quarterback guru George Whitfield, Jr., and also worked as a counselor at the Manning Passing Academy, where he hung with several top college quarterbacks and NFL stars Peyton and Eli Manning.

Franklin said both experiences reminded him of the importance of fundamentals, his second primary focus this offseason.

“Just having the right footwork, following through with the arm, keeping a wide base, things like that even though they seem so small, it really affects (you),” Franklin said.

Hill thinks the experience at the Manning camp left an impression of Franklin.

“Those guys, they’re a shining example of how to lead teams and what kind of standard you want to set,” Hill said. “I think he got some good information that just kind of reinforces what we’re saying, but also how he’s thinking. They’re pros, Super Bowl winners, the gold standard. What you take away from that camp, he can incorporate at Mizzou.”

Like the need to be more vocal, for instance. Hill said Franklin has a “great” church family in Columbia that he spent a lot of time with earlier in his career, but has been doing a better job of bonding with all his teammates — his third major point of emphasis this offseason.

For instance, Franklin said he’s bonded with several teammates with the help of a popular video game called “Just Dance 4” on the Xbox 360.

“I’ve been having more guys over, playing that,” Franklin said. “Before, maybe I’d go eat with guys, but now we get a big group of them to come over. I got that game after Christmas break and we came back and a lot of the guys like playing it.”

Teammates say Franklin has been more vocal after plays, often relaying words of encouragement. Even Pinkel has noticed a difference in Franklin, adding that the struggles he had last year toughened him up some.

“He’s a different guy right now than he was a year ago,” Pinkel said.

Still, there are signs that Franklin remains the same loose, fun-loving person he’s always been.

Sometime after the spring game in April, Franklin was driving around Columbia with a couple of buddies from Texas when one of them came up with a crazy idea.

“He was like, ‘You should definitely drive around on a golf cart and give people rides home to classes’ and stuff like that,” Franklin said with a laugh. “I said ‘That’s kind of a good idea.’ ”

So a few weeks later, Franklin said he and Alex Demczak, a former walk-on quarterback, got up the nerve to do it. They got hold of a university golf cart, and for a few nights, they gave students rides from downtown to the dorms.

Franklin said it gave him a chance to interact with fans and students and get to know them a little bit better.

“After we dropped some people off, they were like, ‘I think that was our quarterback that just gave us a ride,’ ” Franklin said. “People started tagging me on Twitter and stuff. That was probably the funniest thing that happened.”

Sophomore guard Connor McGovern said Franklin’s personality is a big reason players may rally behind him.

“We don’t need the angry motivator,” McGovern said. “Quarterbacks don’t all need to be like that. But I’ve seen him get on guys. I’ve seen that fire that people don’t think is there.”

Any doubt about Franklin’s standing with his teammates cooled when he was voted one of four team captains on Aug. 1, two weeks before Pinkel officially chose him as the starter.

“It means we believe in him,” senior guard Max Copeland said. “It means we think he can be a good leader for our offense and our team.”

Now, it’s up to Franklin to prove them right. Though he outplayed redshirt freshman Maty Mauk throughout the spring and preseason, Pinkel said Mauk is positioned to earn a planned series or two every game. The calls for Mauk to play, not to mention the vitriol, will only grow louder if Franklin struggles again.

“You just really (try) not to pay too much attention to it, just have fun with it and enjoy it because it doesn’t really matter what they say, it’s not going to change the truth,” Franklin said. “And the truth is going to play out as the season goes on.”