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March 13, 2013

Expectations and reality









It's the time of year where expectations cloud reality, where gloom gives way to bloom and where hope springs eternal.

It's spring football season, a time of cliches and adages, and perhaps no player better embodies that new awakening better than Missouri quarterback James Franklin. The last we saw Franklin, he stood on the Kyle Field sidelines, wearing a jersey and shorts as a concussion kept him from the Tigers' final game in the 2012 campaign.

The lasting image of 2011 -- a 20-yard bulldozing touchdown run against the Aggies -- is a visage-turned-spectre in a year gone wrong. Instead, we're left with a wrenched shoulder, an awkwardly bent knee, a jarring hit to the head that summed up the Tigers' first season in the SEC. Those are the forefront, ahead of a background of promise and potential blurred by time.

Yet hope does spring eternal. While plenty has changed in a year, Franklin is ready and recharged for a redemption shot in a battle of three. His starting job? Gone with the Missouri wind. His reputation as a warrior? Sullied and soiled. His anointment as The Next Great Tiger Quarterback? Postponed.


Franklin, however, is ready to redeem himself, in the eyes of his coaches, his teammates, and his own. The first step came with getting healthy, a process that he said took until halfway through winter break. After the concussion, Franklin said he couldn't run or workout for nearly three weeks.

"For the most part, being home over break, about halfway through is when I started feeling at least 100-percent healthy," Franklin said. "I mean, I wasn't doing a lot of football-type drills, but I was working out, working on the basic fundamentals."

At the end of last season, the now-senior quarterback was down. It was made clear in post-game interviews, especially following the close road loss to Florida. He admitted he was too hard on himself, and it carried over to future games.

For Franklin, the low point wasn't one game or throw. It was a gradual fall in which something he couldn't control -- the injuries -- carried over into something he could. After getting healthy from a shoulder injury suffered against Georgia, Franklin strained his MCL after two drives against Vanderbilt, a time where Missouri's offense finally appeared to gel.

"I think coming back from the injury, I let it affect me more mentally," Franklin said. "Yeah, maybe my knee was still coming back from -- I think against Florida, I let it affect me mentally. Although I could put a lot of pressure on it, and it'd be fine, but in my head I'd second-guess it."

In the second half against Tennessee, Franklin returned to form, and it carried over to the first half against Syracuse. Then, his season ended on a concussion, and so too did Missouri's hopes for a bowl berth.

In his time off following the season, Franklin decided to get his head right. He began to read more on the topics of "leadership and spirituality," focusing on his attitude for his final season in Columbia.

"No matter what, you can always choose to have a positive attitude, and how effective that can be," Franklin said. "I know I didn't do a good job at that last season. I've really done a lot of studying up and reading and taking into account that no matter what happens, being positive is always going to be a better outcome."

He also readied himself for the inevitable -- an open competition at quarterback, with Corbin Berkstresser and Maty Mauk as his main challengers. Franklin understood that course of action would be necessary, and a January meeting with head coach Gary Pinkel confirmed that reality.

It's a competition that will play out largely without the prying eyes of the media, as new restrictions limit access to team drills during practice. It's a spring of firsts, with the limited access to practices and also the first real quarterback battle involving an established senior in Pinkel's tenure.

That's okay for Franklin. He's using the lost year as motivation, but he doesn't view himself as competing with his quarterback colleagues.

"I'm not saying it's good that we lost so many games, but it does give me motivation to do well and really push," Franklin explained, "and not look at it necessarily from a competition standpoint, like 'I need to win the job.' Just to do so well to play the guys out of the water, the defense out of the water, and that's what I'm using it as."

So now we look to the changes to see whether to expect the 2011 or 2012 James Franklin in Missouri's second SEC go-round. He talks about adding more muscle, about "taking a risk" and growing his hair out. He still laughs, an aura of feigned cockiness that doesn't always read like jokes when typed on a page. His teammates talk about a return to his sophomore year form, about increased leadership and confidence on the field. His coach says the decision to open the competition was because of injuries -- "things not his fault."

We look to the blooming tea leaves to see whether expectations and reality can mesh once again for James Franklin.

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