Johnathan Franklin finds his way

LOS ANGELES -- Rick Neuheisel knew three things about Johnathan Franklin when he became his coach at UCLA: Defensive coordinator Dewayne Walker wanted Franklin to play safety, offensive coordinator Norm Chow wanted him to play running back, and there had to be a very good reason everybody called him "Jetski."

Neuheisel, who hadn't been involved in recruiting Franklin, was a blank slate.

He'd watch and let the evidence speak for itself.

"Dewayne recruited him as a DB, but I didn't want to put him over at DB until I saw him," Neuheisel said. "I wanted to see what I was turning down before we made the decision. And he was very gifted as a runner, even as a freshman. So to me it was like, we can't let that guy be anything else yet.

"There's no question he can go out and be a corner. A great corner. Because he can flip his hips and he can run and he's tough. But you have to make the decision that's going to help you win the most games."

Looking back, or rather, looking back on that time now that Franklin is poised to become UCLA's first 1,000-yard rusher since Chris Markey in 2006, it's amazing there was ever talk of Franklin being anything but a running back.

Franklin needs just 55 yards in Friday's game at Arizona State to reach 1,000 on the season.

But the initial indecision about where Franklin would fit best coming out of Dorsey High in 2008 underscores his relative inexperience at the position and the vast potential he hasn't yet tapped.

"I really only played running back for one year in high school," Franklin said. "I was mostly a defensive lineman my first three years. Plus, I was behind [former USC running back] Stafon Johnson until I was a senior.

"So I'm still learning. As a freshman [at UCLA] I was just out there running, not knowing what to do. I really am still learning. Understanding how to run the ball, the position, how to block. Understanding how to hold the ball, how to cover it up in traffic.

"All I used to do was just run straight. I hadn't had a lot of coaching. This is my first three years of having a running back and I'm still learning all that stuff.

"The biggest thing is just making it natural and not thinking about it."

This season, as the Bruins' passing attack has again sputtered, Franklin has had to carry a heavy load. The Bruins are a wretched 118th out of 120 FBS schools in passing with just 1,142 yards and three touchdowns through the air.

Though some of that is a natural byproduct of switching to the run-oriented "Pistol" offense, the expansion of his role came as somewhat of a surprise to Franklin.

"I didn't have a clue it'd be like this," said Franklin, who has carried a team-high 187 times in 10 games this season. "With the way our passing game went last year, and the great camp we had, I didn't have a clue I'd carry so much.

"But I can do it, and I feel blessed to have this opportunity. I mean, when I first came here, I was on the bottom of the depth chart. I can't remember how many running backs there were, but I think I was like eighth out of eight."

Franklin redshirted his first year while he learned his new trade. He played on the scout team and studied more experienced backs like Milton Knox and Aundre Dean, both of whom have since left the program.

In the offseason he worked on getting stronger and faster with All-America safety Rahim Moore, his high school teammate at Dorsey.

"Jet [Franklin] is still finding himself," Moore said. "This is just the beginning for him.

"That guy is just a really good football player. Doesn't matter where you play him. You can put him at running back, defense, safety, slot receiver. He can play anything. You could put him on kickoff and he'd go and blow out somebody."

That much has been true since Franklin got to UCLA.

What Neuheisel has enjoyed watching is how Franklin's leadership abilities have grown alongside his role in the offense.

He was always a positive influence on the team," the coach said. "This year he's been more than that."

After the Bruins started 0-2 with games against then-No. 23 Houston and then-No. 7 Texas ahead, it was Franklin who called a team meeting and asked his teammates to come together and play for each other.

"John has been huge for us," Neuheisel said. "He's a gifted player. And he's also taken on a leadership role and as he progresses in his career. He's only a sophomore eligibility-wise, but he's going to be one of the guys responsible for the resurrection of this program."

Franklin sees his time at UCLA and on the football field as just the first part of what he wants to accomplish in life.

He has dreams of running for City Council one day and trying to enact change in the inner city.

Football is merely the mechanism by which he can enact change now.

"Where I'm from a lot of people are just gang bangers or going to jail," he said. "They really don't have people in their lives to guide them. They go down those wrong paths. So for me, coming from that neighborhood and now being in college and playing football at a place like UCLA, it's just always in the back of my mind to do positive things, be a role model and help people the best I can to change their lives."

Franklin's still figuring out the best way to do that once he graduates. Law school is an option. So are politics, social work and coaching.

Like his start at UCLA, Franklin can take off in whatever direction he chooses.

Ramona Shelburne is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow her on Twitter.