Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Ghosts of the Orange Bowl: Bubba Franks

They say everything is bigger in Texas and former University of Miami tight end Daniel "Bubba" Franks was no exception to the rule. The 6-foot-6, 260 pound Franks was not only big on size, he was huge on talent. Franks was the first of four University of Miami tight ends to become NFL first round draft picks from 2000 to 2006. Not only was he an outstanding receiver, he blocked like an extra tackle on the offensive line.

Growing up Big Spring, TX, Franks was not heavily recruited. In fact University of Miami head coach Butch Davis found him by accident. During a trip to Texas, Davis was trying to recruit defensive lineman Damione Lewis of Sulphur Springs. One of the coaches told him about a raw prospect down the road who was an excellent high school basketball player and had potential to be a fine college football player. Intrigued by the coach's recomendation, Davis decided to take a trip down to the small West Texas town of Big Spring. He was amazed by what he discovered.

Davis couldn't believe Franks had no scholarship offers from major schools. His blend of size and athleticism was startling. The first thing that stood out about Franks was his handshake. He had hands the size of small dogs. Franks also had a quiet and humble demeanor. He never showed signs of having a prima donna attitude of many highly recruited high school prospects. After meeting Franks, Davis knew immediately he had found a hidden gem and offered him a scholarship.

Franks came to Miami at a very crucial time. The Hurricanes had been penalized by the NCAA with scholarship restrictions. UM had lost close to 40 football scholarships and were limited in how many recruits it could sign. Due to probation stemming from the Dennis Erickson years, Davis was forced to carefully choose the right players to rebuild Miami into a national power again. The 1996 recruiting class was Davis's first at UM and he knew he couldn't afford to miss or make a mistake with any of his new players. Franks was considered a bit of a gamble, only because he was relatively unknown by the recruiting gurus. The big names of the class were Edgerrin James and Damione Lewis, who were both prep All Americans.

When Franks arrived at the Coral Gables campus, he was in culture shock. Not only did he have to make the adjustment playing a higher level of football, he had to socially adjust to living in a city. Growing up in a small town that had maybe one or two traffic lights was much different than living in Miami. He sat out his first year and redshirted while playing on the scout team. Franks was big and athletic, but he was still considered too raw and wasn't ready to contribute.

In 1997, Franks finally saw his first action as a college player. The Hurricanes roster was small and was in the worst shape of its probation period. The undermanned Canes finished 5-6 including a 47-0 crushing loss to Florida State. Home games at the Orange Bowl no longer had any home field advantage. The crowds were smaller and those who did show up were more hostile to the home team. At one point, a crazy Miami fan paid a pilot to fly a banner over the Orange Bowl that read "From National Champs to National Chumps. Thanks Butch".

But in the middle of the turmoil, Franks was quietly establishing himself as one of the brighter stars on the team. During the 1997 and 1998 seasons, Franks caught 37 passes for 7 touchdowns. His run blocking was just as good, while plowing holes for running backs Edgerrin James and James Jackson. By late in the 1998 season, there finally appeared to be a light at the end of what was once a bleak tunnel. He was named All Big East both years. The Canes finally had a breakthrough victory beating undefeated UCLA 49-45 and snapping the Bruins 20 game win streak in front of ESPN cameras. Franks caught only one pass in that game. But it was his blocking that really made a difference. Edgerrin James set a UM record 298 yards rushing and many of those yards came while running behind Franks.

By 1999 Franks was no longer a secret. NFL scouts and draft experts were already pegging him as a sure first round prospect. He was only a junior and it was clear the 1999 season would be his last at Miami. He didn't disappoint. Franks caught 45 passes for 565 yards and 5 touchdowns. He finished second on the team in all three receiving categories behind only Santana Moss. He was named first team All Big East and All American. During a game against Syracuse, Franks made an acrobatic diving one-handed catch. To this day, it's the best catch I've ever seen by a UM tight end. The Hurricanes finished 9-4 and were finally on their way back to prosperity. As expected, Franks chose to forgoe his senior year and enter the NFL draft.

He was selected by the Green Bay Packers in the first round as the 14th overall pick. Franks played eight seasons with the Packers and was named to three consecutive Pro Bowls in 2001, 2002 and 2003. He has caught 232 passes for 2,347 yards and 32 touchdowns in his career. He signed with the New York Jets in 2008 and was then released after the season.

Franks left a great legacy at the University of Miami. Hurricane fans had seen good tight ends in the 1980s and early 1990s with players like Glenn Dennison, Willie Smith, Rob Chudzinski and Coleman Bell. But none of those players had the size and athletic talent of Bubba Franks. The success of Franks led to Miami becoming a popular destination for young aspiring tight ends. Jeremy Shockey, a junior college player from Ada, Oklahoma, picked Miami because of Franks's career. Later came Kellen Winslow and then Greg Olsen. Another player, Eric Winston, originally was recruited out of Midland, Texas as a tight end. Winston was highly recruited and chose the Canes because he was a fan of Bubba Franks. Winston ended up outgrowing the tight end position and became an offensive tackle. He too is now an NFL player with the Houston Texans.

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