LOS ANGELES -- Johnathan Franklin isn't listening.
It seems like everywhere he goes these days, all he hears is buzz. There is some hubbub about him suddenly emerging as a Heisman Trophy candidate and chatter about UCLA turning a corner by getting back into the national rankings.
Franklin has waited four long years to hear these kinds of things, and much of it is warranted, but it's only two weeks into the season, so he's blocking it out.
He leads the nation in rushing and has helped lift No. 22 UCLA into the national polls for the first time since 2008, but Franklin says that means very little at this point of the season.
“I’m not at all satisfied,” he said. “I can’t be happy where I am; I can’t be happy with what has happened. We still have a long road ahead. I still feel like I haven’t done anything yet. We’re just 2-0. We’ve got 10 more games left in this regular season. We haven’t done anything at all. Right now it’s all just noise, and I have to shut all of it out.”
If he keeps going like he has been, it’s only going to get louder. Franklin, a 5-foot-11, 195-pound senior, rushed for 214 yards in UCLA’s season opener against Rice and backed it up with 217 yards rushing this past Saturday against Nebraska. His 431 yards rushing are 82 more than anyone else in the country and would put him among the top 25 teams in the nation through two weeks.
He’s suddenly on everyone’s Heisman contender list, and the UCLA athletic department this week started laying the groundwork for a Franklin-for-Heisman campaign that will launch if he puts together another good game this Saturday against Houston.
There is a good chance of that happening, as the Cougars (0-2) have given up 493 yards rushing in two games -- seventh most in the nation among Football Bowl Subdivision teams -- so there might be a Franklin photo coming soon to a billboard near you.
That’s all good and well, Franklin says, but it won’t amount to much if he doesn’t stay focused on the task at hand.
“I’m not really paying attention to that because I can’t,” he said. “We have a game this week. My team needs me to focus on practice and getting better. They need me on Saturday. I don’t want to focus on [the] Heisman or anything like that. I just need to keep being the same person I’ve been.”
That means on and off the field.
On the field, Franklin is thriving in the new spread offense brought in by coach Jim Mora and offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone. Franklin ran well as the featured back in the Pistol offense the previous two seasons and had 2,669 career yards rushing entering this season, but the spread seems to suit his running style even better.
He’s able to get into the open field more where he can use his speed and shiftiness to make tacklers miss. In Week 1, he broke touchdown runs of 74, 78 and 22 yards. Against Nebraska, he exploded for 97 yards in the fourth quarter alone.
“He's a tenacious runner,” Mora said. “He's hard to bring down. I think that people look at him and they think that he's a little running back. He's not. He may be short, but he's powerful. He's got great lower body strength. He's got a heart that just jumps out of his chest. He refuses to be tackled. He charges our team up.”
It’s that last part that makes him the team’s most indispensable player. Franklin is a UCLA captain for the second year in a row because he brings the type of leadership and character that have earned him respect across the locker room.
He’s a nose-to-the-grindstone type of guy who outworks just about everyone else on the team and does so without ego. He is the first to arrive in the meeting rooms for film work and always sits in the front row. He’s the first to call out teammates for not working hard enough and he’s the first to help out a teammate in need.
If there were a Heisman for being a caring and thoughtful human being, Franklin would have been on everyone’s list of favorites long ago, according to Melvin Emesibe, a UCLA walk-on running back.
Emesibe recalls his first day on the practice field last year when he felt lost and out of place. He didn’t know anyone on the team and had very little confidence taking the field with all the recruited scholarship players. Franklin saw the look in Emesibe’s wide eyes.
“He introduced himself to me and said he was going to help me out,” Emesibe said. “I really was surprised. I even asked him why he was doing it, and he was like, ‘Well, someone has to help you out.’ That’s just the type of person he is. He just saw a guy who needed help, and he came and helped me out.”
Franklin took Emesibe under his wing, spent extra time with him after practices and showed him technique. He watched film with the walk-on, helped him learn the playbook and encouraged Emesibe to stay on the team even when Emesibe felt like leaving.
“I probably would not be here right now if it wasn’t for Johnathan Franklin,” Emesibe said. “It really helped my confidence to have the star running back doing that for you. It’s really nice to have someone like that in your corner.”
During the offseason, it was Franklin who nearly left the Bruins. After three frustrating seasons, Franklin was ready to give up on the college game and test the waters of the NFL draft. He had grown weary of waiting for a turnaround in the Bruins' program and says he felt like it was time to take the next step.
After meeting Mora and figuring out what the Bruins would be about this season, Franklin decided to stay, and he’s glad he did.
“It’s been great to be here and be a senior leader,” Franklin said. “To be able to take young guys like Brett Hundley and mentor him and get him ready for the future. To talk to these young guys and be an example to these young guys.
“Hopefully I am blessed with a great season, but it’s just as important that I leave with some kind of impact on them. Teach them how to play the game and how to have character and how to be a young man.”
Franklin is certainly making an impact on the UCLA football record books. He has matched Gaston Green and Karim Abdul-Jabbar for most 200-yard games in school history, and he is now seventh on the school’s career rushing leaders list with 3,100 yards. Another 96, and he’ll vault all the way to second on that list. He needs 632 to pass Green for the school record.
Franklin attributes his early season success to playing more relaxed. He said he put too much pressure on himself the previous couple of years and placed too much importance on football.
The result was a career filled with ups and downs, good games mixed in with costly fumbles. Big wins followed by bad losses. During the offseason, Franklin found a deeper connection to his faith, he said, and that helped steady his focus.
“I think football was too important,” he said. “I feel that God puts you through certain things to help you understand that. All the turnovers and roller coasters, I think that happened for a reason. I don’t know what is going to happen the rest of this year. It might be the same thing, but I feel that everything that has happened has a purpose and has put God at the center of my life.”
And that inner peace has put him in the center of the Heisman Trophy discussion, although it’s not that Franklin has noticed. He’s worried only about the present and getting a win Saturday, not some award for which he might or might not be a serious contender a month from now.
He’s most interested in the film he’s about to watch or the practice his team is about to have or the game he’s about to play.
“For me, I’m all about right now,” Franklin said. “It’s not about down the road; it’s not about yesterday. It’s about right now.”
Everything else is just noise.