May 24, 2019

O’Leary: Franklin turning the page after ‘miserable’ 2018

Heading into his sixth CFL season, James Franklin had a new mindset in place and was ready to roll.

Spend any time with the 27-year-old quarterback and you’ll find that he might be the most polite, good natured player in the league. The answer to any question is always met first with a “yes sir” or “yes ma’am” and through his first four years playing in Edmonton he always had a smile on his face. The son of a minister that’s always on a mission to be his best self, Franklin admits that he’s always tried to please people.

After the toughest year of football he’s ever experienced, he wants this year to be different.

“That’s what I struggled with last year. Last year I was trying to be adaptable,” he said on Thursday, after the Argos had wrapped up another long day of training camp.

“I was trying to be coachable, I was trying to be able to adjust and I got away from being me. This year, with this opportunity I’m not really going to worry about that.

“Not to come off as too blunt, but I don’t really care now what anyone else would say. It’s a different mindset this year.”

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So Franklin took to the field on Sunday at the start of camp firm in who he is and what he does. No more second-guessing himself. No more worrying about the consequences of his choices on the field. If he were a Tupac fan (he’s not), this is where he would have dropped a me-against-the-world reference.

Then his new coach named him the starting quarterback.

“I went back and forth on that, (having) the mentality of not really caring what anyone else says,” Franklin said.

“But it was definitely encouraging and feels good. At the same time my thought process, my demeanour and how I want to handle things hasn’t changed but it is nice to hear.”

Franklin went into last year, his first in Toronto, with those around the CFL singing his praises as the game’s next great quarterback. His resume wasn’t long after those four seasons in Edmonton — none of Mike Reilly’s backups see the field very often — but he’d shown flashes of greatness and had GMs across the league intrigued as he headed into free agency. The Argos traded for him with a few months left on his first contract and signed him to a new deal in January of 2018.

When Ricky Ray had his season-ending neck injury in Week 2 of the season, it was assumed that the starting job would be Franklin’s. Marc Trestman had different plans. After four starts, Franklin lost the starting job to McLeod Bethel Thompson and was used on short yardage until early October, when the team was spiraling down to the bottom of the league’s standings.

Franklin finished the 2018 season with 187-286 passing for 2,034 yards, eight touchdowns and nine interceptions. He rushed 78 times for 365 yards and 14 touchdowns on the ground. Trestman was relieved of his duties as soon as the season ended.

“That was the most miserable I’ve ever been playing football,” Franklin said.

There have been more adverse moments, he said, pointing out injuries during his college days at Missouri and going unselected in the NFL draft. But nothing in the game had taken away his happiness like the past year did.

“He definitely has a desire to be great. He wants to rise to the top, he knows who he is. He has to centre that mindset, get his mind right in terms of, ‘Hey, I’m the quarterback and nothing else matters except me leading this team to victory’.”

Argos head coach Corey Chamblin

James Franklin is pictured during a game in Montreal in his first season with the Argos (Dominick Gravel/Montreal Alouettes)

When Corey Chamblin was hired in December, it was one of the first things he talked about with Franklin.

“I told him before he puts it behind him to dive all the way in it and learn from it. Don’t try to sweep it under the rug like it didn’t happen,” Chamblin said.

Five days into camp, the coach sees growth from his starter.

“The biggest thing I’m noticing is that when there’s a little bit of adversity he’s able to bounce back. I don’t see his head drop, I don’t see him look at the ground,” the coach said. “James is always a smile-first guy but he understands that, ‘Hey, I have to get better on the next rep.’ He understands the process. When it’s time to roll, he’ll be ready.”

Franklin said he and Chamblin had maybe four conversations through the off-season. That and the time they’ve spent together over this first week of camp have gone a long way toward getting them started on the right foot together.

“We had some long conversations and he came out up front and said he has an aggressive personality. That’s just who he is. It’s not that he’s necessarily upset or trying to be mean,” Franklin said.

“Early on he said, ‘You have a smiley personality, so if you’re not smiling I know something’s wrong.’

“I really appreciated that because a lot of coaches might have taken that the wrong way. I could be smiling or they’re telling me something serious and I have a little grin on my face and they’re like, ‘You think this is funny? You’re not taking this seriously?’

“He understands that and that’s me. I really liked that at the beginning. We talked different philosophies and how we wanted things to go and what we wanted to accomplish and it was very enjoyable for me.”

In his time as a coach in the CFL, Chamblin has been around some great quarterbacks, from Kevin Glenn to Henry Burris, to Darian Durant and Ricky Ray. He’s seen some of the best and for most of them — maybe Ricky Ray excluded — it was never a smooth ride, never a simple Point A to Point B journey.

“Anthony Calvillo, look at all the things he had to go through before he became Anthony Calvillo,” Chamblin said.

“(Almost all) quarterbacks had to go through something before they found out their strength and their mindset that they’re going to be a championship quarterback.

“(Franklin) definitely has a desire to be great. He wants to rise to the top, he knows who he is. He has to centre that mindset, get his mind right in terms of, ‘Hey, I’m the quarterback and nothing else matters except me leading this team to victory.’”

He won’t complete that journey in a single season, but if Franklin can use his new mindset to take some of those steps for the Argos, it should give them a shot in an East Division that looks to be wide open.