John Franklin III Is the JUCO Backup QB Who Could Take the SEC by Storm

Barrett Sallee@BarrettSalleeSEC Football Lead WriterApril 19, 2016

Auburn QB John Franklin III
Auburn QB John Franklin IIIMichael Chang/Getty Images

AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn quarterback John Franklin III isn't short on confidence. The former signal-caller at Florida State and East Mississippi Community College moved to the Plains in December and began his trek to win the starting job over senior Jeremy Johnson and sophomore Sean White—both of whom started games during the Tigers' lackluster campaign of 2015.

"I believe I'm going to be out there on Sept. 3 the first snap of the game," Franklin said.

The 6'1", 174-pounder from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, completed seven of his 11 passes for 61 yards in the A-Day spring game, including a 40-yard touchdown to Marcus Davis, and is squarely in the mix to be named Auburn's starting quarterback.

"I live to play in front of crowds," he said. "I love that. I'm a game-time player. I feel like I'm a different person come game day, and I felt relaxed, comfortable—like I've been playing here for five years. When a lot of people are around, I know when to turn it on and go."

Franklin was a 3-star prospect out of South Plantation High School near Fort Lauderdale whose only Power Five offers were from Florida State and Tennessee. He enrolled at Florida State in 2013 with the intention of competing for the starting quarterback job once Jameis Winston moved on, and he took a redshirt.

He announced he would transfer from the Seminoles in May 2015, shortly after Everett Golson decided to move to Tallahassee from Notre Dame, and played his sophomore campaign as a backup at East Mississippi Community College.

AUBURN, AL - APRIL 9: Quarterback John Franklin III #5 of the Auburn Tigers during their spring game at Jordan Hare Stadium on April 9, 2016 in Auburn, Alabama. (Photo by Michael Chang/Getty Images)
Michael Chang/Getty Images

In the limited time Franklin played for East Mississippi, he shined. He was 64-of-110 passing (58.2 percent) for 733 yards with seven touchdowns and two interceptions and rushed for 451 yards (10.5 per carry) and nine scores.

People who know Franklin best think he will be the starting quarterback at Auburn.

Buddy Stephens coached him at East Mississippi Community College, where he split time with returning starter Wyatt Roberts, who played 11 games behind Chad Kelly (now at Ole Miss) in 2014 and threw 23 touchdowns and only two picks alongside Franklin in 2015, according to the NJCAA, before giving up football and enrolling at Mississippi State.

"It wasn't that John didn't take the job away from [Roberts], it was that Roberts never gave John an open opportunity," Stephens told Bleacher Report. "They co-habitated very well. John, never one time did he whine, did he gripe, did he cry. Nothing."

That's not coachspeak.

"John's a great student of the game and is always watching film," Roberts told Bleacher Report. "We had conversations in weeks before games about what coverages they were doing. It was a friendly competition, no doubt. We were both winners, and that's what we were there for. We helped each other out. When he was in, I was 100 percent behind him helping him out just like he was when I was in the game."

Though Roberts played a more prominent role than Franklin, Stephens saw what his backup was capable of.

"John's very athletic, very smart and can make a lot of things happen," Stephens said. "That's one of the things we talked to the coaches at Auburn about when they came to recruit him. John's probably the best athlete on the field whenever he's on the field."

It was when the Tigers sent coaches to recruit Franklin that East Mississippi made headlines for all of the wrong reasons.

A brawl broke out late in the first half of the Lions' Oct. 22 game against Mississippi Delta Community College with Stephens' crew up 48-0.

What you probably don't know about that brawl is that its genesis stemmed from Franklin—not for nefarious reasons but noble ones.

After entering the game for an injured Roberts, Franklin completed 10 of 16 passes for 119 yards and one touchdown, and he added 10 carries for 172 yards and five scores. It was his most significant action of the season, and it was by design.

"We planned on playing him a lot regardless because [Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett] Lashlee had come to watch him play," Stephens said. "On that Saturday [two days later], Auburn was playing at Arkansas, so Rhett drove through and had to leave at halftime.

"He was wearing everything out in the first half. So, we tried to do it one more time. We tried to get one more series so that we can throw a little bit so Rhett could see it because we knew that this was John's opportunity and John's chance. Well, the other team and everybody else around the league hates us so much because we win, it caused a fight."

It caused a fight but left a lasting impression on everybody who saw him play that night.

"He was on fire," Roberts said. "I came out, and John went in, and it was like a highlight tape. Every time I looked up from the training table, he was running for 60 yards or throwing a deep ball. It was, by far, the best performance he had all season, and it's a shame that all of the chaos broke loose."

AUBURN, AL - APRIL 9: Quarterback John Franklin III #5 of the Auburn Tigers looks to pass the ball to running back Malik Miller #32 of the Auburn Tigers during their spring game at Jordan Hare Stadium on April 9, 2016 in Auburn, Alabama. (Photo by Michael
Michael Chang/Getty Images

Franklin got his scholarship, choosing Auburn over an offer from Buffalo, and now he has a chance to fit into a Power Five system that matches his skills.

For Franklin to take the SEC by storm, though, he needs to use his legs as weapons. He's the key for Tigers head coach Gus Malzahn to get off the hot seat and get Auburn back on the right track.

After winning the SEC title and coming within 13 seconds of claiming the national championship in 2013, Malzahn has sputtered. His Tigers have lost nine of their last 11 conference games and are coming off of a 7-6 season before which they were ranked No. 6 in the country.

There's far too much talent on the roster for Auburn to be mediocre, and if Malzahn tabs Franklin as his starter, Franklin will provide the running option the Tigers need to be successful.

Quarterbacks weren't "live" on A-Day, and if anybody got in the same ZIP code as Franklin, he was ruled down. But Malzahn's offenses are at their best when they have a running threat taking the snaps—like in 2010 when he won a national championship as Auburn's offensive coordinator with Cam Newton contributing 1,473 yards and 20 touchdowns on the ground. In Malzahn's first season as head coach in 2013, Nick Marshall rushed for 1,068 yards and 12 scores, and the Tigers finished 12-2.

"I wish I played 'live' today," Franklin said after Auburn's spring game. "I could have gotten some other stuff done."

The staff knows Franklin isn't there to play a backup role. He's there to be "the man."

"You don't bring in a junior college guy and not expect him to play," Lashlee said in April, per Charles Goldberg of the team's official website. "I can't tell you what exactly he's going to do at this point because he's still in competition to be the starter. He is a guy that has shown he can handle things. He has some impact player ability, so I would expect us to find a way for him to help us regardless."

AUBURN, AL - APRIL 9: Quarterback John Franklin III #5 of the Auburn Tigers  hands the ball off to running back Malik Miller #32 of the Auburn Tigers during their spring game at Jordan Hare Stadium on April 9, 2016 in Auburn, Alabama. (Photo by Michael Ch
Michael Chang/Getty Images

Franklin served as the scout team quarterback and did his best impression of Marshall for Florida State prior to its meeting with Auburn in the BCS National Championship Game in January 2014. That time with the Seminoles allowed him to hit the ground running on the Plains.

"When I helped out at Florida State, it was definitely my favorite week being the scout team quarterback just because it fit me," Franklin said. "That's one of the main reasons that I'm here now—because this offense fits me. It feels really good to be in an offense that's suited to fit my skill set."

Franklin's stature, speed and elusiveness make him much more of a Marshall clone than a Newton clone. Most of Marshall's damage on the ground came on the outside, with running backs Tre Mason (2013) and Cameron Artis-Payne (2014) taking the lion's share of the work between the tackles. Newton was more adept at running power and inverted veer elements.

For Franklin to play more of the Marshall role, he will have to provide a deep threat through the air. That has been his top priority in 2016.

"I see a big difference from when I first came in to now," he said. "The game is starting to slow down for me.

"The deep ball, I've gotten better at. Just the little things in the offense that are real unique, I'm starting to see myself get better and am going to take that to the offseason."

AUBURN, AL - APRIL 9: Quarterback John Franklin III #5 of the Auburn Tigers during their spring game at Jordan Hare Stadium on April 9, 2016 in Auburn, Alabama. (Photo by Michael Chang/Getty Images)
Michael Chang/Getty Images

That's not just self-confidence; that's what his coaches are saying, too.

"The ball comes out of John's hands well. He's got a strong arm. He can spiral the ball, snap it off pretty good," Lashlee told Goldberg. "There's been a couple things naturally that he's worked on that I think that has improved a lot from Day 1 until now. The deep ball wasn't his strength. He can really drive the ball, make all the throws."

That progression will force the Auburn staff to make a choice—between a pro-style option or a scheme with more of a running threat from the signal-caller. If it goes with the running threat, Franklin is the only option.

"This is a quarterback-driven offense," said co-offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach Kodi Burns, who switched from quarterback to wide receiver as a Tigers player prior to the 2009 season—Malzahn's first as Auburn's offensive coordinator. "We're going to do whatever suits our quarterback best—whoever that is."

Johnson entered last season with enough hype to fill Jordan-Hare Stadium, but he threw six interceptions in his first three games of the year, was benched for White and never seemed to have the confidence he showed in the 2014 season opener, when he threw for 243 yards and two touchdowns in the first half versus Arkansas.

White played admirably in Johnson's stead despite being put in a tough spot. He threw only one touchdown to four picks but looked much more consistent than Johnson in the spring game April 9, hitting Davis in stride for a big gain in the first quarter and dropping a couple of beautiful passes to running backs on wheel routes out of the backfield.

But he fumbled in the red zone, tossed what should have been an interception near the goal line and doesn't have the wheels Franklin does.

"Voluntary" summer workouts and fall camp are going to make or break Franklin's quest to win the starting job. Stephens, who not only coached Kelly but also former Rebels Bo Wallace and Randall Mackey, saw firsthand at East Mississippi just how good Franklin can be.

"He has all of the arm strength of any quarterback I've ever had—ever. Anybody," Stephens said. "He has tremendous arm strength. He's tremendously coachable. It's like that first-round draft choice, and you're just waiting on him to click one day in the minor leagues. All of a sudden, he comes to the majors, and he's 19-4 and wins the Cy Young."

Malzahn better hope Franklin can be his ace, because his job depends on it.

The kid from Fort Lauderdale who sought out his chance now has it, and Stephens doesn't think he's going to let it slip through his fingers.

"John Franklin's going to be one hell of a good quarterback," he said.

Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Statistics courtesy of cfbstats.com unless otherwise noted. Recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.

Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and national college football video analyst for Bleacher Report, as well as a host on Bleacher Report Radio on SiriusXM 83. Follow Barrett on Twitter @BarrettSallee.

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