On Saturday, James Franklin steps into the starting role he’s patiently sought against the man who taught him so much about the game.
The Toronto Argonauts quarterback spent three seasons in Edmonton behind Grey Cup champion and CFL MOP quarterback Mike Reilly. He was traded to the Argos for offensive lineman Mason Woods, a second-round CFL Draft pick.
Reilly spent three seasons in B.C. as a backup to Travis Lulay who won a Grey Cup and CFL MOP. He was traded to the Eskimos for a second-round pick.
Franklin has displayed the potential to become a franchise quarterback. Reilly is the face of the franchise in Edmonton.
“You don’t ever really know until you’re given the opportunity and put in that position. But the body of work that he’s put together so far, it’s very similar to myself in the sense of he didn’t come in and get thrust into a franchise role as a rookie,” Reilly said.
The 26-year-old saw action in 12 games as an Eskimo, starting three throwing for 1,449 yards, 12 touchdowns and just one interception completing over 65 per cent of his passes while going 2-1 as a starter.
“He got a little bit a taste of what the up and down roller coaster is, had a couple great games and then had a game against Calgary that was challenging and those are the types of experiences that you need to make you ready for that type of an opportunity,” Reilly said.
Edmonton’s gunslinger believes there are major benefits to sitting and learning, citing Bo Levi Mitchell and Matt Nichols as examples. He points out that a number of signal callers come to the league and start quickly which hinders chances at long-term success.
“We’ve all seen it in this league when you have a team that isn’t stable at the quarterback position and a young guy that maybe has some potential gets thrust into that role too early and the weight of the team is on his shoulders and they’re out of the league in eight weeks or one year like Troy Smith in Montreal,” Reilly said.
“Guys come in and they have to take on that huge role right at the beginning of their CFL career and that’s a lot to deal with because there is a lot of difference between being a back-up, starting a game or two in relief and being the guy with the media obligations and all that focus on you.”
Franklin garnered a lot of attention while playing NCAA football for the University of Missouri. He was the Tigers starter for three seasons after taking over from former first-round NFL pick, Blaine Gabbert in 2011. As a sophomore, Franklin made a mark passing for 2,865 yards (63 completion rate), 21 touchdowns, 11 interceptions and rolling up 981 yards and 15 touchdowns on the ground, leading Missouri to an 8-5 record and Independence Bowl win.
Then Mizzou switched conferences going from the Big 12 to the Southeastern Conference (SEC), annually the most competitive conference in all of major NCAA football. Franklin fought through injuries in 2012 but returned fully healthy in 2013, throwing for 2,429 yards, 19 touchdowns, six interceptions and rushing for 510 yards and four touchdowns while leading Missouri to a 2014 Cotton Bowl win.
Despite that success, Reilly says there is a transition to the professional game.
“The biggest challenge to learn when you become a franchise quarterback is dealing with the ups and downs, week-in-week-out of a full 18-game season. When you’re in college you play a 10, 11 game season and if you’re a really good team – there’s over 120 NCAA Division I schools – seven out of your 10 games you’re playing against teams that you know you’re going to smoke,” Reilly said.
“Whereas here the parity is so high that every single week your preparation has to be on point and there are going to be games that you’re going to lose.”
Reilly went 4-14 as a starter in 2013, the first year he was the No. 1 quarterback. The 33-year-old called it the most challenging year of his pro football career, the losses mounted and it hard him thinking about football from when he woke up at 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. or midnight when his head hit the pillow – literally every single minute of the day Reilly’s mind was on football.
“Your team looks to you and when you’re in that position it’s easy to do it when you win, when things are not going so well – which happens for every single team in this league – that’s when you really figure out what you’re made of is when you battle through that tough stuff. That separates the pretenders from the champions,” Reilly said.
“You just get to that understanding of how this is how my life is going to be for six months, I’m going to feel nothing but pressure, I’m going to thrive in it, I’m going to love it and I’m going to embrace it.”