MacKinnon: Eskimos rookie quarterback a work in progress

 

But James Franklin already is exciting to watch

 
 
 
 
Edmonton Eskimos quarterback James Franklin throws a pass against the Toronto Argonauts during Friday’s Canadian Football League game at Commonwealth Stadium.
 

Edmonton Eskimos quarterback James Franklin throws a pass against the Toronto Argonauts during Friday’s Canadian Football League game at Commonwealth Stadium.

Photograph by: Greg Southam, Edmonton Journal

EDMONTON - Ricky Ray was 22 back in 2002 when he made his first start at quarterback for the Edmonton Eskimos in which he looked not at all like a raw rookie.

Ray completed 21 of 28 passes for 277 yards and four touchdowns, two of which were caught by Ed Hervey, now the Eskimos general manager.

The Eskimos beat Damon Allen and the B.C. Lions 37-27 on the night Ray instantly became a fixture at quarterback in Edmonton. Which he remained until Ray was traded to the Toronto Argonauts in December 2011.

Ray, 35, was on the sidelines at Commonwealth Stadium on Friday night when rookie QB James Franklin, 24, made his first CFL start for the Eskimos in a 38-15 victory for Edmonton over Toronto.

Franklin looked somewhat less polished than Ray had back in the day, but he looked not at all like a rookie QB.

In fact, his numbers were better. Before Eskimos head coach Chris Jones lifted him in garbage time, Franklin completed 29 of 38 passes for 335 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions.

It wasn’t Franklin’s first CFL game, just his first start. His poise and command had already been evident in his work in five previous regular-season games and in the pre-season.

Franklin engineered a 12-play, 92-yard drive off the opening kickoff for the game’s first touchdown. How do you like me so far?

“That helped out a lot,” Franklin said. “Any time you can come out like that (on) the opening drive and put points up on the board, that does a lot for the team, momentum-wise, and you feel good after you get a score in there. So it was very nice.”

On the Eskimos’ second possession, Franklin lofted a 53-yard rainbow to receiver Derel Walker, setting up the Eskimos’ first-and-goal situation at the Toronto six-yard line. Franklin and Walker, a new duo a la possibly Ray and Jason Tucker, hooked up on another bomb in the third quarter, lifting the crowd of 31,573 out of their seats. Both those tosses set up Eskimos field goals, not TDs.

In the end, Walker caught seven passes for 164 yards and one TD, which came with 5:09 left in the game.

You want to be careful with the comparison. Ray’s maiden start came owing to an injury to starter Jason Maas, who became the Eskimos’ Wally Pipp. Sidelined by injury, Maas only reclaimed the starter’s job when Ray left for one season to take his NFL shot with the New York Jets in 2004.

Franklin’s shot has come owing to a knee injury to Eskimos’ No. 1 man, Mike Reilly, and the ineffectiveness of the backup quarterback, Matt Nichols.

When Reilly is healthy, he is expected to resume speed calling signals for the Eskimos, not sit down in favour of the rookie. Perhaps he will. But in the CFL as in civilian life, if possession is nine-tenths of the law, then a hot quarterback can be tough to dislodge.

Just ask Jason Maas. For that matter, check with Ray when his throwing shoulder is deemed fit and he’s ready to play again. Many CFL observers already assume he will be traded, making room for Trevor Harris, his understudy, whose stellar play has the Argonauts at 6-3.

Franklin, out of the box, is not the seemingly finished product Ray was back in ’02. Ray would often say his job in those years was made easier because he joined a veteran team with accomplished offensive playmakers in place like Hervey, Terry Vaughn, Tucker, et al.

But Franklin’s package of skills may be more complete than Ray’s or Reilly’s once the University of Missouri graduate has assembled all the pieces. That could take a season or two. Or it could take a few weeks, given how self-possessed he is.

For starters, the six-foot-two, 225-pound Franklin is a gifted runner, even if he has been selective in deploying that with the Eskimos so far. In four years with Missouri, Franklin carried the ball 450 times for 1,729 yards and 21 TDs.

Reilly can run, as well. He ran for 709 yards for the Eskimos in 2013, his first season in Edmonton, and carried the ball for 616 yards last year.

Ray, a pure pocket passer, has been the most accurate quarterback in the league, basically, since he started his CFL career.

Franklin remains a work in progress. He can overthrow receivers, he can loft passes to the middle of nowhere on occasion. On Friday, he didn’t fling reckless passes that might have been picked off. He was selective with his running, carrying four times for 51 yards and one TD.

Hervey was asked whether Franklin’s first start reminded him of any other he had witnessed.

“If we’re comparing his start to anyone else’s start, we’ve seen some pretty good starts from a rookie quarterback,” Hervey said. “I think the last one that we saw around here turned out to be pretty special.”

jmackinnon@edmontonjournal.com

Twitter.com/rjmackinnon

Check out my blog at edmontonjournal.com/Sweatsox

 
 
 
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Edmonton Eskimos quarterback James Franklin throws a pass against the Toronto Argonauts during Friday’s Canadian Football League game at Commonwealth Stadium.
 

Edmonton Eskimos quarterback James Franklin throws a pass against the Toronto Argonauts during Friday’s Canadian Football League game at Commonwealth Stadium.

Photograph by: Greg Southam, Edmonton Journal

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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