Want to see what good middle linebacker play looks like? Watch this Alabama prospect work.
06 Oct 2012
By Matt Waldman
Every year in college football there are a handful of players that have a strong enough start to the season that they become a dark-horse candidate for the Heisman Trophy. The take is generally prefaced or followed with the phrase "Yes, it’s early in the season." Take the advice from someone who has used too many statements like "Yes, it’s early," "Yes, he’s only a rookie," or "Yes, he hasn’t faced a difficult opponent." If a supporting argument needs one of these deals then don’t bother.
Yes, if you’re curious, I’ll probably forget about this criticism in two weeks and write the same thing myself.
The "yes-it’s-too-early-to-vote-for-a-Heisman-candidate-but-I’m-going-to-share-my-list-with-you," technique aside, I do agree with ESPN writer Kevin Gemmell’s assessment that UCLA running back Johnathan Franklin is good. Perhaps not with the oh-my-gosh-I’m-so-totally-over-these-hypens-let’s-get-some-fish-tacos-"10-point-freaking-5 yards per carry," kind of excitement as Gemmell because one of these games was a match up with Rice, but overall I’m with him on Franklin. The 5-foot-10, 195-pound senior is a better prospect than many may realize.
And yes, I’d like a couple of fish tacos with some guacamole and a Corona right about now. Gemmell. If you come across me busting your chops, just know that the first round is on me -– I appreciate the grist for the mill.
Franklin is off to a torrid start in Noel Mazzone’s offense, a one-back spread formation with a lot of no-huddle that propelled Arizona State to 10th nationally in total offense in 2011. Mazzone’s offense features the running back as a pass receiver and uses a lot of short passes in space. For a back with Franklin’s skills, it’s a good fit.
One of those skills is power, but Franklin’s yards-after-contact skill is not rooted in the natural strength that I saw when I studied Eddie Lacy. The Alabama runner has 25 pounds on Franklin, but the UCLA back possesses something that could make him just as valuable as Lacy to an NFL club: decision-making. It’s a skill that several readers consider an esoteric factor because it isn’t measured with a stopwatch or tape measure. However, I’m analyzing two plays where the importance of decision-making is a huge factor in the success of a run.
I’m selecting a 2011 contest against Stanford because UCLA wasn’t very good last year. They lost seven games and Franklin’s average workload was 12.5 touches per game, with just 18 touches as his busiest week. Despite starting the entire year, Franklin saw 49 fewer touches during his junior year than he did as a sophomore. However, the Bruins’ best offensive weapon still performed well. I think the Stanford contest is indicative of UCLA and Franklin’s 2011 season, which was a year filled with moments where the runner had to stretch himself to create gains. Runners from better college programs don’t have to do this as often until they enter the NFL. Franklin’s junior season had some of the same challenges for the back to expand his repertoire of skills that I believe helped make Matt Forte and Ahmad Bradshaw NFL-ready.
Franklin’s game-opening carry of five yards is a good example of a situation where a running back has to stretch his conceptual skills further than what is demanded from the average college runner. It’s a play where Franklin can’t dance his way to an open space. This is the exact scenario where most young backs experience initial failures when they enter the pros. The carry begins from a 12-personnel unbalanced pistol set, with twin receivers to the unbalanced strong side. The tight ends shift to the twin side of the formation just before the snap, which forces the defense to make last-second adjustments before Franklin takes the exchange towards the strong side edge.
On paper, the successful execution of this play is dependent on a pair of strongside double teams. The first is from the two tight ends attempting to seal the strong side linebacker at the edge, and the second double team is the right tackle and right guard on the defensive end. In addition to sealing the edge, the line hopes to provide the running back some alternate cutback lanes. This depends on what Franklin sees at the second level of the defense.
As Franklin takes the exchange and runs parallel to the 15-yard line, the UCLA double teams fail to open holes inside. The running back is now facing penetration at the edge from the strongside linebacker, which forces Franklin to begin his burst east-to-west rather than north-to-south. This means that Franklin will have a more difficult change of direction to execute, especially with the defensive back beating the slot receiver to the outside and in great position to cut off a bounce to the flat.
With the middle linebacker’s backside pursuit closing off any chance of a cutback, Franklin has to bend his run inside the defensive back at a sharp enough angle to get his pads in position to win a collision with the opponent. At the same time, he has to make the turn with enough speed to maintain some distance from the strongside linebacker. Most backs make the mistake of stopping and cutting. This works a lot in college football, but in the NFL, players similar in physical dimensions to Franklin like Reggie Bush and LeSean McCoy learned that using this maneuver gets you ear-holed. Wide receiver Peter Warrick was a star at Florida State, but earned more ear-holes from defenders than yards because he never made this adjustment as a space player.
Franklin has no such problem. He bends this run sharp enough to get his pads downhill and fast enough to beat the strongside linebacker, like a racecar executing a hairpin turn. This gives him the north-south advantage on two defenders attempting east-west adjustments.
As Franklin reaches the line of scrimmage, he gets strong pad level into the collision with the middle linebacker and defensive back that sandwich him with hits. This looks like a textbook pad-level drill. Franklin’s initial read of the defense two picture frames earlier and his subsequent reaction puts the runner in position to be the aggressor in what is a well-defensed play.
The UCLA back’s pad level and early adjustment downhill helps him leave both defenders on the ground and maintain his balance to gain five yards on a play where several more heralded backs would have danced or cut back to find themselves with a five-yard loss. Franklin’s pad level and leg drive helps him finish this run with yards after contact.
Another demonstration of Franklin’s decisive style comes on his third carry with 13:30 in the first quarter. This is a second-and-10 run from another 12-personnel unbalanced pistol set. Instead of a run to the edge, this is an off-tackle play to the strongside, with misdirection that the wing back and slot receiver provide when they motion across the formation after the snap.
The motion and the blocking design create a nice gap between right tackle and the right end. The Bruins hope the center or right guard can work off the double team to reach the middle linebacker in the second level, which will give Franklin a chance to clear the line of scrimmage. As with any play design, the running back has at least one unblocked defender he must handle. In this case it is No. 3, the Stanford defender a few yards deeper than the middle linebacker, and he is the one approaching Franklin’s intended gap.
A good preface to what Franklin does to hit this gap and avoid a collision with the defensive back is to reference a visual example of what not to do. Here's an example that comes from Doug Farrar’s analysis of Chris Johnson’s poor performance against the San Diego Chargers. Both of the carries that Farrar shows have factors that fit this single UCLA run play.
On the first play, Johnson doesn’t bend the run around the edge of the overload, and instead runs into the line. The next play, Johnson has a nice hole but has to bend the run away from safety Atari Bigby and lacks the pad level to finish the run when he encounters the backside defender with his cutback. Franklin does both things right that Johnson does wrong.
The UCLA runner bends the run tight to the right tackle, which accomplishes two things. The defensive back has to travel further to make contact, and he will come from an indirect angle that will be easier for Franklin to run through. Additionally, the tight bend around the tackle makes it more likely that the middle linebacker overruns his angle to the ball carrier. This is exactly what happens on both counts.
Franklin’s approach to the hole forces the linebacker to overrun the angle to the ball carrier by a step, and the defensive back has to make a play on the runner’s outside shoulder. Note the low pad level from Franklin, which forces the defenders to deal with shoulders, knees, and elbows –- all difficult points to tackle when a runner is moving downhill.
Once, the Stanford defensive back makes contact with Franklin, he bounces off the runner’s pads and is left with a last-ditch attempt to flail for the runner’s right arm or leg. Franklin’s approach that distorts the middle linebacker’s angle to the open gap is now visible. The linebacker now must stop, turn, and give chase in an attempt to drag Franklin to the ground. By the time the linebacker reaches Franklin, the runner is dragging the defensive back for extra yards.
A lack of good decision-making is often the root of many issues for running backs. If a runner makes a poor decision, he often lacks the time to set up a defender, get his pads low, switch the ball to the sideline arm, or get into a position to keep his legs moving after contact. If Franklin runs with this level of recognition and decision-making on a consistent basis, he’ll be a step ahead of some more-heralded backs when he reaches the NFL. Throw in the fact that Franklin demands to play special teams coverage, and he’ll be in demand at the next level.