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Johnathan Franklin, once seventh at UCLA, knocks on NFL heaven's door

Running back Johnathan Franklin, No. 7 on depth chart as a UCLA freshman, will fulfill a lifelong dream when he's drafted by the NFL. He could go in second round.

April 23, 2013|By Sam Farmer
  • UCLA running back Jonathan Franklin beats the Stanford defense for a 51-yard touchdown.
UCLA running back Jonathan Franklin beats the Stanford defense for a 51-yard… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)

NEW YORK — It could average 400 pounds from tackle to tackle, and still the offensive line Johnathan Franklin runs behind in the NFL won't be as daunting as the line he had at UCLA.

His line in college was a queue of seven running backs, and Franklin was at the bottom of the depth chart as a freshman. He typically got to touch the ball once per practice.

"If I didn't do something with my one rep, I'd walk away mad," said Franklin, who this week will become the first Bruins running back drafted since Maurice Jones-Drew in 2006. "Maybe the tackle didn't block the end and I'd get hit in the backfield, or I'd make a bad cut or something. And that's my day right there. That's how I'm getting graded."

He might have been Mr. One and Done at the start of his career, but Franklin soon became the most reliable fixture in the Bruins' many offensive schemes. He finished as the school's all-time leading rusher with 4,403 yards and all-purpose gainer with 4,936.

Along the way, he overcame a fumbling problem and emerged as one of the nation's most dangerous playmakers. According to STATS LLC, Franklin's 27 "explosive" running plays last season — runs of 15 yards or longer — tied him with Oregon's Kenjon Barner for the most in this draft class.

"I think he will be a guy [who], if he stays healthy, will play for 12 years," said UCLA Coach Jim Mora, former coach of the Atlanta Falcons and Seattle Seahawks. "I think NFL teams will love his versatility. He runs well between the tackles. He can run well in space. He's got excellent hands. His two ace cards, or hole cards, are that he's an outstanding pass protector and he's a really good special-teams player."

The latter qualities are essential for a third-down back projected to be chosen in the second or third round. Whatever he's asked to do on the field is fine by Franklin, a former Dorsey High standout. The way he sees it, he'll be living his lifelong dream simply by pulling on an NFL uniform.

"I'm the first one in my family to go to college and graduate," he said. "Nobody has made it this far. There's so much that I'm working for and representing, it's bigger than me."

On the field, most players are bigger than the 5-foot-10, 201-pound Franklin, who proved in UCLA's multiple systems that he not only has the speed to get to the edge and turn the corner, but also has the strength and durability to run between the tackles.

"He's got everything they look for with respect to running the football," former UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel said. "His acceleration, vision, ability to break tackles — he's much stronger than he appears — all that's great."

In a text message to The Times this week, an NFL team scout wrote that Franklin is a "very instinctive runner with rare foot quickness, vision and instincts. Great natural run skills. Good hands, not great hands. Type of guy you want on your team."

Jones-Drew, a friend of Franklin's, played in the shadow of USC's Reggie Bush in college and was widely projected by NFL teams to be a solid third-down back, a prospect who was good but not great. The 5-foot-7 Jones-Drew was selected in the second round by Jacksonville, went on to claim multiple Jaguars rushing records and led the NFL in rushing in 2011, consistently outperforming Bush as a pro.

"Johnathan went through a lot of changes at UCLA, and that gave him the opportunity to show what kind of player he is," Jones-Drew said. "That's why I'm excited he finally got a chance to win at the end of his career. That's big. . . . He produced in every system that they ran."

Franklin might have felt in the early going that he didn't catch the eye of coaches — he said he frequently felt they didn't even know his name — but clearly they noticed him. He started the first eight games as a redshirt freshman in 2009, leading the team with 566 yards rushing and five touchdowns. Those proved to be modest numbers for a back who last season ran for 1,734 yards with 13 touchdowns.

More important, he lost the ball just once last season after fumbling seven, six and five times in the previous three seasons. He fixed his fumbling problems by carrying a football with him everywhere he went before last season, taking it with him when he walked across campus, went to dinner and sat in movies. He even took it with him to bed. People who knew his plight — teammates and others — would try to poke, rip and pry it from his grasp.

That was typical of Franklin, always willing to go the extra mile. Or, during practice, the extra 80 yards. That's one of the ways he worked himself up from seventh on the depth chart.

"I watched what the other guys wouldn't do," he said. "Then, I'd start finishing every rep I had. Every time, I took it to the end zone. No matter where the ball was on the field — even if I was at the other 20 — I'm going all the way to the end zone. I had to. I set the standard."

And he hasn't stopped running.

sam.farmer@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATimesFarmer

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