Johnathan Franklin came to UCLA in 2008 as part of a class that featured a crowded backfield. Franklin wasn’t even listed as a back of any sort – running, tail or otherwise. The Dorsey High product came to UCLA as a safety.
In five seasons as a Bruin, Franklin went from an undersized, speedy scatback to a polished and dominant tailback that now holds the school’s all-time rushing and all-purpose yards records. Franklin smashed Gaston Greene’s old mark of 3,731 with 4,369 yards. Maurice Jones-Drew’s name was moved down in favor of Franklin’s 4,887 yards.
As Franklin preps for his final game as a Bruin in the Bridgepoint Education Holiday Bowl, he reflected on the roller coaster ride that his been his time in Westwood. The realization that it is finally ending is starting to hit him.
“I’ll probably be crying before and after the game,” Franklin said. “It’s been our best football season that (the seniors) have had collectively.”
In five seasons at UCLA, Franklin has been reviled and loved. Franklin was booed for his fumbles and given standing ovations on campus for his touchdowns. His status over four playing seasons has been symbolic of the way the entire football team has been looked at in recent years. Big wins that were supposed to mark turnarounds never came and the instability was only made more complicated by the personnel changes and team turnover.
“Adjusting to all of the coaches changes, I think that’s been difficult,” Franklin said. “And just not getting caught up in the distractions, what people are saying.”
This season, when the turnaround finally came, he was ready. His teammates thought so too, naming him a captain.
Leadership had been a crucial element that at times the Bruins had lacked over the years. Franklin earned the nickname “The Mayor” from fans, after revealing hopes to someday run for mayor of Los Angeles. For a player that has both NFL and serious political aspirations, being chosen as the leader of the team was an honor. He quickly got to business, identifying what he felt the team best needed in terms of a leader and working hard to fulfill that.
“Stepping up and being able to lead of a team that had been through adversity and that nobody really believes in, that has so many doubters was (a challenge),” Franklin said. “I needed to lead by example.”
It’s a position he will always been immensely grateful for.
“I definitely have a ways to go, I’m not there yet,” Franklin said. “But I’m happy to be able to do what I have done.”
On the field, Franklin wants the ball every snap. He has thrived under Noel Mazzone’s open-space, stretch-the-field offense – the fourth offensive system he has played in as a Bruin. It was a memorable season for the All-American and Doak Walker Award finalist, as he was finally able to showcase his entire skill set while leading UCLA to its best season since 2005 and rewriting the record books almost every week.
But in a season full of memories, the accomplishment that stands out the most was not one of his own.
In UCLA’s 66-10 win over then-No. 25 Arizona, sparsely-used running back Melvin Emesibe found his way into the end zone late in the fourth quarter for his first career touchdown. Franklin, who earlier in the game had broken Greene’s all-time rushing record, was so ecstatic that he sprinted on to the field to celebrate with his friend. A celebration that was so over the top he was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct.
“I went so crazy when Melvin scored,” Franklin said. “He just works so hard and has been through so much in his past. Just to see how far he’s come, a walk-on scoring a touchdown, words can’t describe.
“I’m getting emotional right now just thinking about it.”
The consensus among the Bruins seems to be that this team is a special one. There is a spark, a chemistry and some magic that was captured this season. Franklin said that he hopes every single Bruin on the 2012 team will be at his wedding and that hopes to be at all of theirs as well. “Brothers from other mothers,” is how he describes this year’s squad.
It was an eventful year to cap a trying career, but it isn’t over yet.
“I can’t really say how far we’ve come until after this next game,” Franklin said. “That’s going to solidify everything – the note we go out on and how we all play.”