UCLA running back Johnathan Franklin was one of the most dominant in the country of the year and was an early candidate for the Heisman Trophy among numerous other awards and finishing the season as the all time leading rusher in UCLA. Franklin is a passionate player on the field as well as off and has big goals for his in and out of football. We discussed his career, finally beating USC, and his attitude going into the NFL Draft plus some ambitions for life after football as well as making it clear he wants to be thought of as more than just a football player.
Peter Smith: You were born in LA, but how did you end up at UCLA?
Johnathan Franklin: I was born in South Central LA and choosing UCLA, there were about ten of us in the inner city. We came on our visit one day and we all decided we wanted to go to UCLA and just turn it out and take it to the top, you know, and come here to be remembered for something.
PS: What did this last season mean to you both individually and from a team standpoint?
JF: From a team standpoint, it was great. Coach (Jim) Mora took us to a place called San Bernardino and went away from campus and we went there for training camp. We didn’t have any cell phones and there was nobody else but us there. We went to Cal State San Bernardino, they were out of school. It was nothing but mountains and each other. It was 105 degrees every day in practice and it was just a different mentality and a different vibe. Through that, we became closer as a family because that’s all we had when we went out there. We’re not a team; we’re a family. They mean so much to me. I just went to practice on Saturday and it was a great welcome and a great love from everybody apart of that team. And I should them the same thing. I feel that doesn’t happen everywhere in this country; in that form with other teams.
Individually, it was just a blessing for me this year to have come so far. It’s been a long journey, a lot of bumps over these past four years to have had the success I have had is truly humbling and truly a blessing.
PS: What changed this year that allowed you to go from a good running back to a dominant one?
JF: First, I definitely got to give credit to my great offensive line that worked hard and busted their tails off every play for me. And I had some unselfish wide receivers that made some big blocks down the field, blocking safeties. And with me, just work ethic; just working hard; not just in practice, but late at night going running or waking up early in the morning and going to work out. Doing more than just enough and pushing myself as much as I can. God has blessed me so much and put me in this position to lead. It’s not just about work but it’s about faith as well. The two just work together and I was able to have a great season but I was also able to shine for him and spread his love and spread his word.
PS: What’s the most meaningful award or achievement from this past year?
JF: I would say being the UCLA all-time leading rusher. Just to look back at all the great running backs; we’ve had a lot of running backs come through UCLA. Just to be a part of that was truly a blessing; it really is. At the end of the season, we have this award where the players vote and it’s called the Bruin Force Award. It’s just not about how well you play, but it’s about your character. I was able to win that award, but the team voted for it and you know, it’s such a blessing to be viewed and respected by your teammates and loved by your teammates.
PS: I was going to ask you about that one and the N. N. Sugarman award, both for leadership.
JF: Right. It’s just such a blessing. I mean our program has come a long way and the leadership on our team has grown so much. I’m just humbled and blessed to be able to be a role model and be able to lead these young; not just show them how to work but show them to be great on the field and off the field. The same thing outside the box; yea, football is great, but we’re more than just football players. It’s been a blessing to open people’s minds and to lead them and to help them find out who they really are as men.
PS: What comes to mind when you hear the name Gaston Green; you passed him this year as the all-time leading rusher at UCLA. Have you had the chance to talk to him?
JF: Actually, the second game of our season, Gaston called me and he left me a voicemail and he told he was rooting for me to go out and break the record. One of my mentors, James Washington, actually played with him. I’ve definitely been in contact with him. He’s a great guy and he’s always been positive and encouraging and he was a great back; an amazing running back. It was a blessing to have achieved that and to be able to be talked about in the same conversation as him.
PS: Walk me through how you and your team walked off the field after the USC game?
JF: (Laughs) Oh my gosh, man. It was one of the best feelings I’ve had, you know that was my first time beating USC, and to happen my senior year, to happen at the Rose Bowl, and to have a sold out crowd, it was a blessing. Especially after last year when we got beat 50 to nothing. It was exciting, you know, it’s one of those moments where words really can’t describe how you feel. We were so emotional and just excited not just to win, but to put UCLA back on the map. Yea, we won an okay amount of games, but that game is a very big one. I’d say getting over that hump that UCLA has been trying to get up; so it’s been great to run the city for this year and to have the bragging rights for this year and finally beat those guys my last year.
PS: Is the George W. Dickerson Award (Most Outstanding Offensive Player against USC) sort of the cherry on top of that sundae? 171 yards on 29 carries and 2 touchdowns with 2 receptions for 14 yards.
JF: Oh definitely (laugh).
PS: How would you describe your running style?
JF: I’m just a guy that plays with passion and just loves to make plays. I’ve been in three different offenses; I’ve been in a Pro Style, I’ve been in the Pistol, and I’ve been in the Spread. And just run with a passion and just being able to make plays.
PS: Is there anyone you’ve looked up to as far as how you run the ball and anything you’ve incorporated into how you run it?
JF: I just love the game of football. I grew up watching Garrison Hearst, Warrick Dunn, Eddie George, Jerome Bettis, and Edgerrin James. And now I love watching C.J. Spiller and Ray Rice, I mean I just love the game of football and I love greatness. I feel every running back has their own style of play. I would say has their own swag and their own running style. I just try to make Johnathan Franklin the best he can be.
PS: Talk about you’re your ability as a receiver out of the backfield and your attitude towards blocking
JF: In the spread, you’ve got to be able to catch the ball. I was able to catch a decent amount of balls this year (33). I’m very comfortable but it’s something I’ve got to get better in just like every other aspect of my game. I mean I love it. I love having the ball in my hands. Blocking, you know, I love blocking. It’s something we did every day in practice. And to play this game of football, you have to be able to block as a running back. You’ve got to be able to do it all these. You’ve got to be able to run, you’ve got to be able to catch, and you’ve got to be able to block. You’ve got to be able to be smart and understand what’s going on in the offense.
PS: Talk about your experience down at the Senior Bowl and what you wanted to prove down there?
JF: First off, it was a blessing to get that invite to the Senior Bowl and be among some great players; players that I watched every Saturday morning in my dorm room. It was exciting. And I just wanted to prove that I’m a hard worker and I love the game of football and wanted to get better every day. People are going to have their views on me; they’re going to have their judgments. All I can do is work as hard as I can. I can’t dictate too much how people feel. All I can show them is I’m going to work hard and I’m going to make some plays. I went in there with the attitude that I’m going to do my best; I’m going to let God handle the rest. I’m going to get better each day that I’m here and I’m going to strive to be the same guy every day.
PS: What statement do you feel like you made at the combine?
JF: Of course, everybody at the combine is talented. Everybody at the combine got invited for a reason, but hopefully I showed them that I bring more to the table than just football with character and how to carry myself. And that’s what I’m hoping that I did.
PS: I’m sure that 4.4 didn’t hurt your feelings either.
JF: No, not at all (laugh)
PS: Talk to me about your teammate tight end Joseph Fauria. He’s an incredibly talented player but for whatever reason; people seem to be down on him.
JF: Like I said, you can’t control what people say, regardless of what the media is saying or how many negative things people are saying about you. All you have to do is live your life and walk in your shoes. No one else is going to walk in your shoes but you. I don’t know what they’re saying, but if they are saying certain things, he just can’t listen to the noise. Joe, he’s a great guy, he’s great player and he works hard. There’s been people that’s been talked about in the past that went on and gone and done some great things and I don’t doubt at all that Joe will do won’t do the same.
PS: What do you expect out of your quarterback Brett Hundley leading this offense next year?
JF: Man, Brett is like my little brother, honestly. I’ve poured all I can into Brett as far as leadership and work ethic. I’m sure he’s going to do all he can to take this team to where it needs to be as far as a guy on the field and a guy off the field. Everybody’s going to look toward him. He’s the quarterback, he’s the commander. And I know he’s going to be ready; he’s confident. He’s a man of God, he works hard and he’s not satisfied. I have no doubt in my mind that he’s going to lead this team where it needs to be.
PS: What do you take away from your time with Coach Rick Neuheisel?
JF: Neuheisel was a great guy and a great coach. That whole era I would say just opened my eyes to the business of this game and helped me understand how this game is and was. Regardless of the coaching staff, you have to put your best foot forward; you’ve got to work hard. It is unfortunate what happened to him, but I just understand that this is a business, so that was really eye-opening to me.
PS: I don’t think you could have had two different head coaches from Coach Neuheisel to Coach Mora. What do you take away from your time with Coach Mora?
JF: Coach Mora is a great guy; he’s an amazing coach. He has taught me to have an expectation for myself and to be great in all that I can do. Be a great man, be a great athlete, be great; maximize my potential in every way and be the same guy every day. And I thank him for that; he has played such a big role in changing the mentality of UCLA football.
PS: Talk to me about an assistant or high school coach that you feel has helped your development in football.
JF: I would say Steve Broussard, my running back coach this past year and also, Beano Bryant, my running back from high school. Beano Bryant, he just always believed in me and he pushed me every day and it is funny, Beano Bryant and Steve Broussard was kind of the same, you know, regardless of how well I did or what kind of game I’ve had, they always coached me the same way and they were always honest. They didn’t have a problem with telling me, “If you not workin hard, you ain’t gonna play.” And they always had an expectation of me to be great and seeing something in me at times where at first I didn’t see in myself, they’ve seen greatness in me. So they just kept pushing me to continuously work hard and not be satisfied of games that I may have or the accolades that I may receive but just not get caught up in those external things but continue to work hard.
PS: What do you hope is your lasting legacy at UCLA?
JF: I hope I’m viewed as a man of God, first off without a doubt; somebody that was humble, high character, respectable, and worked hard in everything that I did. Everything. I just wanted to set a standard for men, for football players, and not to be viewed as just a football player, but more than that. And to just do it the right way. And to be wise in the things that I do.
PS: Talk about why you want to be the mayor of Los Angeles.
JF: I had this mentor by the name of Martin Ludlow and he used to be a city councilman of Los Angeles. Growing up, I was always interested in politics; I was reading, looking at CNN, or just reading certain things in class, I was always interested in things that were going on. I used to talk to him about politics and talk to him about the community. He saw that I saw the interest in it so he allowed me to have an internship with the mayor. I got the internship with the mayor of city hall and I was shadowing him and just meeting people throughout city hall and understanding every body’s roles and the role that they play in helping LA move and how things happen in LA. There are so many things that need to be done in LA; we have this school district called the LAUSB and 48% of the kids in the LAUSB, they drop out of school, they don’t graduate. We have a big homeless problem in LA. We are overpopulated with homelessness. There’s a lot of other things with our economy and there are things, financially, being put in the wrong places, being invested in the wrong places. So I just think LA needs a direction and we need to develop a new identity. And being the mayor, I feel I can do that and understanding his role and understanding everyone else’s role in city hall and getting the right team around me to take this city where it needs to be.
PS: What was your take away from spending time with Mayor Villaraigosa?
JF: I spoke about having the right team around you and I think that is so important because it is never a one man job. It’s about having the right people to develop those ideas, to make those plans, and go forth with those plans. And understanding that everybody isn’t going to view those things the way you view them, but you have to learn to come up with a mutual agreement and understand that all the time you’re not going to be right. And sometimes you’re going to have to sit back and listen to the people part of your time. It might not be in the high position that you’re in, so just understanding that the team around you is so important and that’s going to make you who you are. It’s not about you. It’s about the people around you.
PS: How are you hoping to mentor teens while you’re still playing football?
JF: I’m going to actually start writing a plan this week. I want to create an outreach program for youth. I don’t know exactly how I’m going to do it, but I know I have an idea. A lot of the kids in the inner city struggle in schooling and most of the kids that struggle are the kids below a 2.0 GPA. I want to create a mentor program for 30 kids in high school or middle with a GPA below that and send mentors out pretty much to go speak with them; just have an impact on them and be there for them. Sometimes, all a kid needs someone to tell them that I believe in you and that you can do it because they don’t get that at home. Everyone needs that love and that encouragement and somebody there with them to walk with them along the way. I just think that’s the problem with these kids is the parenting.
Things are different from how they used to be. I remember when I was in kindergarten, I used to get whipped from my teacher. My mom used to tell me growing up, other people around the neighborhood used to pop her for doing things they weren’t supposed to do. This whole city and this world has changed with these youths and these teens from how they speak and the things that they do. It wasn’t like that back in the day; they weren’t disrespecting adults. So I think they just need someone in their life to set a different standard and to help them see life differently and have a different perspective. Just create as many outreach programs as I can and do it in the right places and the right time.
In a sports landscape with so many people trying to avoid the mantle of being a role model, it is something that Franklin considers an honor and a responsibility. He approaches his life like he does football; with everything he has. Franklin has a lot of talent and could end up the best back in the entire draft. His incredibly well balanced style and fundamental approach to the position makes him a clinic on tape, so combined with his attitude, he could be a great player at the next level and he makes it easy to root for him. I wish him nothing but good luck going forward.
Tags: Brett Hundley C.J. Spiller Eddie George Edgerrin James Garrison Hearst Gaston Green Jerome Bettis Joseph Fauria NFL NFL Draft 2013 Ray Rice Running Backs UCLA Bruins Football USC Trojans Football Warrick Dunn