Aug. 18, 2011
James Franklin, finding his place as a Bearcat
Last spring Nebraska-Omaha freshman James Franklin had every reason to be excited about spring football.
The young Mavericks finished strong, winning three of their last five games. Their two losses were 34-31 at Central Missouri and 16-14 to Missouri Western. Both teams reached the NCAA Division II playoffs.
For UNO, the D-II playoffs were a staple in its tradition-rich program, which made for a spirited rivalry with Northwest Missouri State.
"We were ready to go into spring ball with a full head of steam," Franklin said. "Everybody was ready for it. We were going to have a good team."
Franklin and the rest of the Mavericks will never find out. Sometime around midnight or 1 a.m. Saturday night last spring, Franklin received an e-mail stating the football program disbanded.
Disbelief was Franklin's initial reaction. He called teammates. He called coaches.
"I got a hold of one them and he said, ‘I'm sorry to say it, but it is over.' That was not a good feeling," Franklin said.
When Franklin went to UNO after a stellar high school career at Olathe North, the last thought on his mind was the football program would end before he graduated.
College athletes deal with coaching change all the time. What happened to Franklin and the rest of the UNO players cut deeper.
In all, four players from UNO have joined Northwest. The others are junior wide receiver Brian Miller, redshirt freshman Jerry Key and sophomore offensive lineman John Becklun.
"From what I've seen from all the kids we got from there is those kids invested a lot in that place. I think it was hard for them," Northwest coach Adam Dorrel said.
"We told them you can play in the MIAA. You have proven that. You will come in here and not be shunned. That is not how this place works. Our kids are going to help you and open their arms to you even if that means you are cutting into their carries, their catches, their tackles and their playing time. That is what our kids have done."
It actually happened to Franklin before he stepped foot on Northwest campus. He received a call from junior running back Jordan Simmons. Simmons already shares carries with junior running back Billy Creason.
Another young, talented running back probably means fewer carries for Creason and Simmons.
Creason said bringing in players that helps the team win is what is important. It adds to the competition in practice and that helps all of them in games.
"It's good when you have a running back calling you and saying this is where you need to be," said Franklin, who rushed for 766 yards and 10 touchdowns for UNO last season. "Obviously, that means people here are not selfish about their position.
"I felt like that was a good sign."
Northwest defense is happy it no longer has to chase Franklin. A year ago, Franklin surprised the Bearcats in the first half at UNO. In fact, Franklin gave the Mavericks their only spark.
Franklin rushed for three, first-half touchdowns against Northwest. The Bearcats, though, went into halftime ahead 44-20 on the way to a 58-23 victory. Franklin finished with a 134 yards.
"We are a defense that prides itself on stopping the run, and that was one game we didn't," senior defensive lineman Josh Lorenson said.
"When I heard that we were getting him I was excited. I am glad I get to go against him in practice instead of a game. He's a big addition to our team."
Franklin said he was surprised by his early success against the Bearcats. It was just his third collegiate game.
"When the coach put me in I went out there with an attitude to see what I can do," he said. "I went out there, made some big plays and got into a rhythm. I thought this might not be as hard as I thought."
He learned about Bearcat pride and adjustments that are made throughout a game. Northwest shut down Franklin in the second half.
"They hit hard," he said. "They wrap up. It does look like they are having fun when they are playing."
Franklin is now immersed in the Bearcat culture and has gained an understanding why the program has been so successful.
"They have more fun than I thought they did," he said. "I could see it on the field when we played against them.
"In practice, we are all joking around. It is a fun environment. I was not really expecting that. You see they have national championships under their belt. They win all the time. I thought everything would be so serious. It is not like that. If you mess up, somebody is there to pick you up. They are not really yelling at you, trying to get you to do everything right the first time. They always encourage you. It's just a good feel."
Franklin figures to add to the winning culture. He has what all good running backs have and that is vision.
Dorrel said Franklin has the ability to spot a hole where none seemingly exist and then burst through it. Lorenson echoed those sentiments.
"He really has a great ability to cut," Lorenson said. "If we are running a power play up the middle and if a hole is not there, he will cut to the outside so quickly and there is nothing you can do about it. You have to be on your toes.
"We have Jordan and we have Billy who will smack you in the face. They give us plenty of different looks. We have a really talented backfield."
Franklin knows there will be a few weird moments during the season. He will face a few UNO teammates who are now playing for other MIAA teams.
"I have some high school teammates who went to UNO and I never had to play against them," Franklin said. "It is going to be interesting to see how that plays out."
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