GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Feleipe Franks already has lifelong memories from the Swamp.
The former Gators quarterback completed a 63-yard touchdown pass to Tyrie Cleveland on the final play to beat rival Tennessee in 2017, his first start at Florida Field. He recorded the longest run by a quarterback in school history a month later, a 79-yard scamper against Texas A&M.
He was on the receiving end of a trick play that helped Florida knock off then-No. 5 LSU in 2018, the biggest win in coach Dan Mullen’s first season. He shushed the home crowd twice following rushing touchdowns later that year, including the go-ahead score with 4:09 remaining, as the Gators rallied from a 17-point deficit to stun South Carolina 35-31.
Impressive resume, for sure.
Now on the opposing sideline, upsetting the sixth-ranked Gators would top the list.
Franks will return to Gainesville to face his former team when he leads Arkansas (3-3), one of the most surprising stories in the Southeastern Conference, against Florida (4-1) on Saturday night.
“It’s going to be kind of just crazy, not necessarily emotionally for me,” Franks said. “But, man, I love all those guys on the staff and the players. It’ll just be fun to get back out there, to play again in the Swamp.”
Franks has spearheaded the Razorbacks’ offensive turnaround, completing 67.2% of his passes for 1,428 yards, with 14 touchdowns and three interceptions. Arkansas had lost 19 consecutive league games entering this season.
Franks, who hails from tiny Crawfordville in the Florida Panhandle, was a three-year starter for the Gators before dislocating and fracturing his right ankle at Kentucky early last season. Kyle Trask came off the bench and led Florida to 19 unanswered points and a 29-21 victory.
Franks spent the rest of the year on the sidelines, watching Trask become Florida’s most accomplished quarterback since Tim Tebow (2006-09). Faced with long odds of regaining his job, Franks announced plans to leave the program a day after the regular season, ending his time in Gainesville that included three benchings and countless boos.
He landed at Arkansas seven weeks later, joining new coach Sam Pittman and offensive coordinator Kendal Briles in Fayetteville. Together, they have the Razorbacks competitive in the league for the first time in years.
“I’d be lying to say I haven’t paid attention to it,” said Franks, who has six touchdowns and no interceptions in his last two games. “It’s not my main focus. My main focus is just spreading the ball to the guys and they make plays for me. I’d be super selfish to be up here and take any kind of credit for that.
“Just being at the University of Arkansas has been a blessing for me. These guys have had my back for every game throughout the season, making plays for me, so that’s all I could ask for.”
Beating Florida would be a huge bonus.
The Gators are 17 1/2-point favorites a week after handling Georgia in Jacksonville to gain a stranglehold on the SEC East Division.
They spent the past few days raving about Franks, whose approval rating with fans never matched his popularity with teammates.
“It’ll be different to see him in another jersey,” said center Brett Heggie, who lived with Franks in an off-campus house. “One of those guys that kind of was with me from fourth-string days to starting. We were always side by side all the way up.”
Running back Malik Davis recalled doing a double take when Mullen first arrived because Franks wore a suit into a one-on-one meeting with the new coach.
“He’s like, ‘I’m going on a business meeting,’” Davis said. “That was just the type of guy he was, always ready, competitor, great love for the game.”
Florida fans never fully embraced Franks, who was turnover prone early in his career and didn’t handle criticism well. He improved with experience and looked poised for a big year in Mullen’s second season after totaling 31 touchdowns (24 passing, seven rushing) and nine turnovers (six interceptions, three fumbles) in 2018.
But the devastating injury — and Trask’s emergence — took him about 1,000 miles northwest.
“I actually still talk to him almost three, four times a week,” Florida receiver Trevon Grimes said. “That’s my boy. Wish him the best and I can’t wait to see him. I’m rooting for him all the time but not (this) week.”
Given all Franks has done in the Swamp, the Gators are prepared for anything short of him celebrating a victory.
“Great runner, big arm, so we kind of feel like they’re going to try to take shots on us,” linebacker Amari Burney said.
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