Jarvion Franklin doesn't have the same attitude that Mike Hart did during Hart's college playing career. That’s a good thing, according to the former Michigan star, who is in his first season as Western Michigan’s running backs coach.
“The thing that makes [Franklin] different is that he didn’t change his practice approach from when he first got here this summer and he was trying to earn that starting position,” Hart said. “Now he is a starter and he’s getting 30 carries a game, he comes out to practice with the attitude that he’s not the starter and he’s got something to prove. If you have a kid like that, you know they’re special. We just gave him 35 carries and he’s out here practicing just as hard on Sunday? I’ve got to hold him back. I wasn’t that way as a player at all.”
The freshman’s hunger has led to production, as the Tinley Park, Ill., native has piled up yards in bunches through the season’s first 10 games, helping Western Michigan to a surprising 7-3 record after last year’s 1-11 finish. The Broncos are right in the thick of the MAC West race, and none of that would have been possible without Franklin, who turned heads from the moment he arrived on campus.
“He was more mature than probably everyone else we were recruiting,” Western Michigan second-year head coach P.J. Fleck said. “He had those characteristics of a true leader. I think when you have those things, that’s hard to find.”
Coaches may have a general idea of what they have in a recruit, but they never really know until the kid steps on the field. The Broncos figured it out right away with Franklin, who carried 19 times for 163 yards with three touchdowns in a 43-34 loss to Purdue on Aug. 30.
“There was all the same conversation around the headsets,” Fleck said. “Hey, man, we’ve got ourselves a back.”
|Aug. 30||at Purdue||L, 43-34|
|Sept. 13||at Idaho||W, 45-33|
|Sept. 20||Murray State||W, 45-14|
|Sept. 27||at Virginia Tech||L, 35-17|
|Oct. 4||Toledo||L, 20-19 (OT)|
|Oct. 11||at Ball State||W, 42-38|
|Oct. 18||at Bowling Green||W, 26-14|
|Oct. 25||Ohio||W, 42-21|
|Nov. 1||at Miami (Ohio)||W, 41-10|
|Nov. 15||Eastern Michigan||W, 51-7|
|Nov. 22||at Central Michigan||?|
|Nov. 28||Northern Illinois||?|
Western Michigan has played 18 freshmen this season. The team’s 2014 recruiting class was ranked 59th nationally, according to Rivals.com, the top-rated haul in the MAC and more highly rated than the classes of Utah, Purdue, Illinois, Colorado and Northwestern, respectively. Fleck is quick to point out that none of his commits flipped to another school despite last fall’s one-win season, and the freshman back has turned out to be the jewel of the bunch.
Franklin has 1,356 rushing yards, seventh nationally, and 22 touchdowns, a total that sits behind only Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon at the FBS level. He leads all freshmen in both categories. At 6-feet, 220 pounds he has the size an every-down back, but he also has the footwork to make guys miss. He reminds Hart of former New York Giants running back Brandon Jacobs with his ability to consistently fall forward and make decisive cuts when necessary.
“The thing that he has -- that every great back has to have -- is great vision,” Hart said. “One thing you can’t teach a kid is to see a hole, you can’t teach him to get to that hole. He has great vision and great feet and great acceleration. It surprised me a lot. He’s hard to tackle. He’s slippery. The thing that’s going to set him over the top is getting him to use his size and be really physical on a consistent basis. He turns it on and turns it off, but if he can be physical on every single snap, which he has the capability of doing, then I truly believe he’ll be unstoppable.”
While Franklin doesn’t have the physical stature of a player like Jacobs, the compliment means something coming from the Wolverines’ all-time leader in rushing yards (5,040). Hart’s credibility as a former back was important in establishing a baseline with Franklin, but it was only a foot in the door. The relationship developed once Franklin started to trust Hart, and part of that came from a belief in what the coaches were building in Kalamazoo.
A former standout receiver at Northern Illinois, Fleck turns just 34 on Nov. 29. His energy was noticeable right away. At MAC media day in Detroit last summer he drew a crowd larger than the one for Northern Illinois, which was coming off a 12-2 campaign that included an Orange Bowl loss to Florida State. The Broncos’ 2014 turnaround from one win to seven has the community taking notice and buying into Fleck’s “Row the Boat” mantra.
“I kind of relate it to the Wizard of Oz when they go through Munchkin Land and they all kind of awaken,” Fleck said. “The witch is dead! We got this stigma off our back from a 4-8 season [in 2012] and a 1-11 season. We think we have our football team again. We wanted to energize our community. We wanted our community to have ownership of our football program. We have all types of oars. There’s oars up in every restaurant, bar, hotel and laundromat in town. You’ll never look at an oar the same way.”
The boat is still rowing, and Franklin is rowing as hard as anyone on Western Michigan’s roster. Now, it’s time to see to which bowl game the river runs.