HOOVER, Ala. • Missouri quarterback James Franklin came here to SEC media days with breaking news to share: He has a disease. He calls it “smile syndrome.”
Until he took a plunge into the fishbowl of major college football, Franklin didn’t think there was anything wrong with flashing the biggest smile in the room or on the playing field. He plays the game, ultimately, to bring joy to others, he said. Some people, though, as he’s discovered, don’t always appreciate that impulse to appear happy. Coaches, teammates, even some fans.
Franklin calls it “his disease.” His condition is serious enough, he said, that he consciously works on stifling his smile in certain situations.
“People who know me well, they understand it,” he said Tuesday at the Hyatt
Regency Birmingham-Wynfrey Hotel, where Missouri was among the first four teams to meet with reporters during the three-day event. “But for the most part … sometimes it comes across that I’m not taking it too seriously or, ‘He doesn’t care,’ or, ‘He thinks it’s funny.’”
It was three years ago when Franklin first realized his demeanor didn’t always fit the football culture. He and Mizzou’s other freshmen were lifting weights. The strength trainers were “yelling at us and telling us we weren’t doing so good,” Franklin said.
One of the coaches caught Franklin — gasp! — smiling in the weight room.
“He said, ‘You think that’s funny, boy?’ “ Franklin said. “He was getting mad because he thought I was making fun of him. That’s happened a couple times in practice where the coaches don’t think I’m taking it seriously because I’m smiling. I do have to be (aware) of that and make sure I smile at the appropriate times.”
Last year, Mizzou’s first in the SEC, Franklin had plenty of chances to practice pouting during a 5-7 season. He suffered four injuries — two to his throwing shoulder, a sprained knee and a concussion — that sidelined him for all or parts of six games, and the Tigers’ struggles paralleled his inability to recapture his promising play from 2011.
Franklin’s production plummeted from his sophomore year. His completion percentage dropped from 63.3 to 59.4. His efficiency rating plunged from 139.9 to 123.6. After accounting for 36 touchdowns and 981 rushing yards in Missouri’s final Big 12 season, he threw just 10 touchdowns last fall — four coming in the four-overtime win at Tennessee — and was barely a factor as a runner, finishing with just 122 yards and no rushing scores.
But with one last chance to salvage his college career by returning Missouri to the postseason, Franklin has discovered something about those around him: His teammates like to see him angry. He’s loosened the reins on his temper this summer during twice-weekly passing sessions.
“Your quarterback, whenever he’s fiery, your whole team’s fiery,” receiver L’Damian Washington said. “Being a quarterback, the responsibility comes with it. … I wouldn’t say he’s a totally different guy, but he’s got a fire up under himself.”
“Some of the guys on the team,” Franklin said, “they don’t want a quarterback who’s (saying), ‘Oh, I don’t know if I’m going to be the starter or not.’”
In the spring, newly promoted offensive coordinator Josh Henson talked extensively about Franklin needing to sharpen his “command presence” as the leader of Mizzou’s offense. Last weekend, Franklin discussed the same topic with NFL quarterbacks Peyton and Eli Manning at the Manning Passing Academy in Thibodeaux, La., where they invited Franklin to work as a counselor along with other prominent college quarterbacks.
Franklin said Peyton Manning spoke with him about asserting himself among his teammates.
“Where you say something it’s heard and people listen,” Franklin said.
“That’s something I really want to apply to Mizzou, my team.”
“He’s mentally tougher than he was,” Pinkel said of Franklin. “You don’t like going through adversity but there’s a lot of things you can learn about yourself. Generally, that’s when greatness comes, when you overcome some adversity and turn it into a positive.”
But there’s also the matter of winning the starting job. After Franklin and backup Corbin Berkstresser combined to produce one of the country’s least productive passing attacks in 2012 — injuries across the offensive line didn’t help their cause — Mizzou coaches staged a quarterback competition in the spring between Franklin, Berkstresser and redshirt freshman Maty Mauk.
Neither underclassman could unseat Franklin in the spring, though Mauk will enter preseason camp No. 2 on the depth chart — ahead of Berkstresser but still looking up at Franklin, who will get the first-team snaps when practices begin Aug. 1.
Pinkel insisted he brought Franklin to Hoover not to indicate he’s the starter but because “he’s just a great representative of our program.”
“We’ll see how it unfolds,” Pinkel said. “We’ll make the final decision in the middle of the month some time. And maybe we won’t have to make a final decision. Maybe it’ll take care of itself.”