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Wednesday, August 31, 2011
Updated: September 1, 5:30 PM ET
Johnathan Franklin is a stand-up act

By Ramona Shelburne
ESPNLosAngeles.com

The list of people lining up behind or alongside UCLA Bruins coach Rick Neuheisel and his 15-22 record isn't a long one these days.

It includes, in short, but in no particular order: Neuheisel's family, friends, family friends and UCLA junior running back Johnathan Franklin.

If you'll notice, three of those groups pretty much have to remain in their places. The other, Franklin, chooses to be there.

And yet when you ask him why he's willing to stand so firmly behind his embattled coach, Franklin makes that choice sound obvious, not brave.

Franklin
Johnathan Franklin rushed for 1,127 yard in 2010 for the Bruins and averaged 5.3 yards per carry.

"You have to be accountable and responsible," Franklin said. "Football is a man's sport and we need to be grown men out here. We don't need to make excuses. When we lose it's our fault, it's not on the coaches. We're the ones playing the four quarters out on the field, not them."

Neuheisel has been good to Franklin, handing him the ball 214 times last season as he became the first UCLA runner since 2006 to rush for more than 1,000 yards.

But Franklin's loyalty to Neuheisel doesn't appear to be merely quid pro quo. It's simply what a captain does. And it's what seems to come naturally to the speedy back from Los Angeles' Dorsey High.

"Of course we understand the situation we're in and the situation Rick Neuheisel is in," Franklin said. "We've been 4-8 two of the last three years. So right now we're nobodies and we'll be nobodies until we win. It doesn't matter how many yards I have or how many touchdowns I score. If we're not winning, we're all nobodies.

"As the captain, I have to take that upon myself. Be positive. Watch what I say and what I do. Be a leader. Because we are going to do what we have to do to keep him here."

He says it with the kind of seriousness that lets you know he wants to be held to those words and will be disappointed if he's not.

"We've got to get it done," Franklin says. "We have no choice but to get it done. ... This is what I came to UCLA to do."

Signing day in 2008 seems like a million years ago after all that's happened since. The unsightly number of injuries, the turnover on the staff and in the locker room, the losing. But Franklin says he's never lost sight of what made him choose to play for the Bruins as part of Neuheisel's highly touted first recruiting class.

"We came here thinking we were going to be top 10 in the country," Franklin says. "We had a big class. Myself, Rahim [Moore], Aaron Hester. It was a great class.

"I remember when I signed, Rahim looked at me like, 'Man, you ready to do this? You ready to take this team to the top?' I'm like, 'Yeah, let's do it.'

"That was the plan for all of us when we got here. So it's been a bit disappointing. But it's like unfinished business. We're overdue on it."

Franklin will have to act alone if he is ever going to make good on those teenage visions of grandeur. Moore, his high school teammate, left early for the NFL after last season and was taken in the second round by the Denver Broncos.

So did Akeem Ayers, UCLA's All-America linebacker, who was drafted in the second round by the Tennessee Titans.

With a passing offense that was one of the worst in major college football returning mostly intact, Franklin is about the only solid thing UCLA can count on heading into Saturday's season opener at Houston.

A star as well as a leader.

"He's definitely a leader," Neuheisel said. "He really started that last year when we found ourselves in a hole early in the season, he was one of the guys who dug us out. Unfortunately we weren't able to keep that tide going, but John's definitely a leader on this team."

A couple of weeks ago, Franklin served as UCLA's player representative at the annual Pac-12 media day. The setup is fairly straightforward. Players and coaches sit at a table during lunch time and wait for curious reporters from around the conference to pull up a chair and ask questions.

Neuheisel was delayed in coming over for the lunch-time session. Coaches sitting on as hot of a seat as he tend to be in demand on the sports talk radio circuit. A group of reporters waited (mostly) patiently for him to sit. Franklin sat alone at a nearby table, quietly eating a sandwich. Over the course of an hour, no more than five reporters approached him to ask a question.

He seemed neither annoyed nor disappointed.

"I don't care about any of that attention," he said. "I don't think I deserve any of it either. Not until we win.

"We just have to keep our mouth shut and continue to play, be humble, and never overlook anyone."

Ramona Shelburne is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLA.com.