Evaluating Mizzou's New QB, Two Weeks In

click to enlarge Gary Pinkel has enjoyed a run of remarkable quarterback play during his tenure as head coach. Can James Franklin step in and keep that standard alive? - commons.wikimedia.org
Gary Pinkel has enjoyed a run of remarkable quarterback play during his tenure as head coach. Can James Franklin step in and keep that standard alive?
The Missouri Tigers play a bit of a cupcake opponent this weekend in Columbia, taking on Western Illinois after two relatively strong teams to open the season. Of course, said cupcake opponent has prompted the Tigers to pull their yearly cash grab by putting the game on pay-per-view, though I can't say I really blame them. Me? I would imagine I'll be occupying a bar stool at some local establishment featuring alcohol and chicken wings, just like I have each of the past few times Mizzou has put a non-conference game on PPV. The school wins, the bars win, only the chickens really lose. 

Anyhow, two games into both the 2011 season and the James Franklin era, the Tigers' record stands at one up, one down. They won a hard-fought contest against Miami of Ohio opening week, then lost a heartbreaker in the desert against Arizona State last Friday. 

So let's take a little closer look at that new quarterback, shall we? After all, as one of the more prolific spread offenses in recent years, the Tigers have established a well-earned reputation for top-notch quarterback play. Does James Franklin measure up? 

For the better part of the last decade with Gary Pinkel at the helm, the Tigers have enjoyed an outstanding run of quarterback play, beginning with Brad Smith and continuing on through the respective runs of Chase Daniel and Blaine Gabbert. All three have gone on to the NFL, and all three were remarkably successful in their time at Mizzou. Smith has gone on to become a special teams ace and wildcat QB. Gabbert has been backing up Drew Brees since entering the league, and I have a feeling he's going to get a shot at a starting job somewhere in the fairly near future. Gabbert is the future in Jacksonville after being drafted in the first half of the first round. 

It's far too early in James Franklin's tenure to either canonize him with those others or write him off as a placeholder, but if you really want my opinion I'll split it right down the middle. Franklin has the kind of running ability the Tigers haven't seen since Brad Smith, but his passing game leaves plenty to be desired at this point. 

Of course, some of that has to do with the fact Franklin is just a sophomore, getting his feet wet in the world of big-time college football, but not all of it. Frankly, I'm very concerned with Franklin based solely on the throws I've seen him make -- or not make, as the case may be -- so far. He just doesn't have the kind of arm strength any of the other recent QB greats at Mizzou have had, and that's not the sort of thing which changes drastically. 

It's not even the deep ball I worry about so much as the short, quick throws quarterbacks have to make into narrow windows on the field. Franklin just puts too much air under the ball, and it just takes too long to get there. We've already seen opposing secondaries jump several routes on Franklin's throws, and I'm afraid we're going to see plenty more of it. 

In fairness, Franklin did look much better last week at Arizona State, making a couple outstanding throws late in the game to pull Mizzou back up after they fell behind big. He feathered in a perfect strike to Michael Egnew in the back of the endzone that would have been good enough at any level, on any day, anywhere. For the most part he seems to have a nice touch, as well. Short passes don't come out with fastball velocity, as we sometimes saw in the early stages of Gabbert's tenure. Of course, that could be because Franklin doesn't really have fastball velocity, but let's just leave that for now. 

The throwing motion for Franklin is also somewhat less than ideal, though it's not terrible either. It isn't a long delivery, but he does push the ball from his shoulder somewhat. A little like a shotput, to be honest. I've seen worse mechanics from plenty successful quarterbacks, though, at the college level anyway. 

What Franklin has shown plenty of so far is an enticing ability to make plays with his legs, and I expect to see even more of it in the future. With Franklin's abilities, the best course for the Mizzou offense to take would probably look something like the offense Oregon runs, with Henry Josey sliding into the LaMichael James role. It's not a perfect fit, of course, because the base systems are somewhat different, but adding in some of the option runs and misdirection plays of Chip Kelly's offense could go a long way toward maximizing James Franklin's particular skillset. Mississippi State runs a very interesting variety of spread as well, one I think might hold some intriguing options for a Franklin-led offense. 

Franklin doesn't have the kind of blazing speed Brad Smith brought to the team, but he does bring an ability to run the QB Power play tree between the tackles that neither Smith nor either of his two successors had. The bane of the spread offense is so often the breakdowns in short yardage, goal line situations, but I think Franklin may be just the sort of player who could rack up lots of 2-5 yard touchdowns, the sort of runs Tim Tebow built his legacy on. A quarterback who can run straight power runs benefits from plenty of extra blocking, making those wide splits of the spread offense into canyons. 

Bottom line, James Franklin is a significant departure from the last two quarterbacks the Missouri Tigers have featured. While I do worry about his ability to fit the ball into tight situations, given what looks to me to be a below-average arm, he also gives the Tigers a different sort of presence in the running game they haven't really had in recent years. I expect plenty of improvement from Franklin as the coaching staff modifies the playbook to take advantage of his abilities, and he learns the offense well enough to start ramping the speed back up to the full no-huddle attack spread teams so often utilise. 

While the Tigers certainly have the ability to be successful with Franklin at quarterback, I do think it's going to require the coaching staff to be flexible and shape the offense into something which more fully takes advantage of what he does well. He's never going to be able to run the spread passing attack the way Gabbert or Chase Daniel did; there are throws those two made Franklin is never going to make. But he certainly offers enough to work with in the Mizzou offense that Gary Pinkel and his staff should be able to build a dynamic, successful offense around him. 

Now, if there was just some way to tell what conference that will be taking place in...