Franklin no longer unknown commodity
UCLA may fly under the radar, but Bruins running back plans to build on successes
Last season, Bruins running back Johnathan Franklin rushed for 1,127 yards -- the 10th-highest mark in UCLA history -- and was second-team All-Pac-10.
Despite his heroics on the field, he didn't make much of a splash on the Westwood campus. As Franklin notes with nary a hint of facetiousness, students typically failed to place the face.
"I think they know who I am," the junior said with a laugh. "People definitely recognize my face. They come up and talk to me. It's a big difference now."
Westwood might be conquered, but the rest of the Southland remains largely oblivious to the hype.
Based on how his 128-yard season opener against Houston was completely overshadowed by the kerfuffle regarding who would start at running back for USC upon Marc Tyler's reinstatement, Franklin faces an uphill battle to capture the city's attention, much less the nation's. (Yielding a more dominant storyline than the future of coach Rick Neuheisel is no cakewalk.)
Life outside the limelight is typical for a UCLA football player. Beyond producing just one Heisman winner (Gary Beban in 1967), the school has had only three players (Cade McNown, J.J. Stokes and Drew Olsen) in the top 10 for voting since Troy Aikman's third-place showing in 1988. (There were 1995 and 1998 Outland Trophy winners Jonathan Ogden and Kris Farris, but who really pays attention to linemen?)
Neuheisel is quick to note that three Bruins (Akeem Ayers, Rahim Moore and Brian Price) have been second-round NFL picks in the past two years, so it's not like those in the know haven't noticed the best of the Bruins. Of course, it's important to understand the difference between media attention and attention from scouts.
Then again, time on "SportsCenter" and other highlight shows is what usually puts players in the position to win awards, as Neuheisel also points out.
"And the media attention, frankly, we gotta earn," the coach said.
"When you're 4-8 [in 2010], who really cares about your football program? Yeah, it's harsh, but it's real," said Franklin, who is majoring in politcal science. "We gotta win. We're nobodies right now. It sounds mean. It sounds like I'm being aggressive. But in all honesty, it's as real as you can be.
"If we go 10-2, everybody will be talking about us," he said. "If we win the Pac-12, everyone will love us. Everybody will talk about the players we have on this team. But if we don't, nobody will really care about the UCLA Bruins."
For that matter, if Southern California football fans don't take enough notice of Franklin, the running back says he is to blame.
"I don't feel I've done enough thus far to be the top, top dog," said L.A.'s Dorsey High product, who in three games this season has 267 yards rushing on 47 carries (5.7 yards per carry) and two touchdowns. "I don't feel I've played to the best of my potential these past three games at all. I definitely need to pick it up, make more plays. We all do."
A 1-2 start sets up for more of the mediocrity Franklin has experienced since arriving at UCLA. But like his coach, he hasn't given up on the dream of a Pac-12 championship or a Rose Bowl appearance. For that matter, Franklin might be humble, grateful for whatever acclaim he's received. But he also is not afraid to think big and believes Heisman Trophy consideration isn't out of reach.
"I don't think anything's impossible if you're a man of God. Not at all," Franklin said. "If we win this Pac-12 championship and if I score some more touchdowns and get some yards, definitely I think I'll be in the talk, God willing."
He has a believer in his coach.
"As our fortunes turn, so will his, with respect to that," Neuheisel said. "But he's very valuable and very talented."
We'll see whether he makes believers out of more of us.
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