Tulane counting on Franklin to make an impact at nickleback

Tulane Green Wave wide receiver Jabril Clewis (88) takes part in practice with safety Jarrod Franklin (6) at the Saints Sports Performance Center in Metairie, La. Thursday, Aug. 17, 2017.

Jarrod Franklin had 78 tackles last season as Tulane’s starting free safety, but he is still tickled to be playing nickelback in his final year.

After moving closer to the line of scrimmage in an experiment that work out well during spring practice, he will start there against Grambling as the Green Wave begins year No. 2 under coach Willie Fritz.

“I really like the position a lot,” he said. “I’m doing something different on every play. I’m more in the mix. I’m not just 15 yards back as a safety valve, dropping (to the) middle third (of the field) every play.”

It helps that he already was comfortable. Although the scheme was quite different, he played the position in 2013 as a freshman for former coach Curtis Johnson. The Baton Rouge University High product then started every game at nickel in 2015 under Johnson.

If anything, last season was the one that required a huge adjustment.

“I’m kind of hard on myself,” he said. “I think I did all right, but it was kind of like a break-in, learning from a new coaching staff. This year I’m more confident.”

That self-belief has been evident. Last Friday, he blew up a two-minute drill, blitzing untouched to sack starting quarterback Jonathan Banks and stop a long drive.

Big (6-foot, 209 pounds) and fast, he possesses all of the skills needed for a nickel defender in Fritz’ system, covering an opponent’s third receiver and rushing the quarterback on occasion. Fritz ran off his list of attributes one by one.

“He’s a mismatch out there on the perimeter,” Fritz said. “The slots (smaller receivers) are going to block him. Sometimes they’ll flex a tight end out there, and he’s big and physical enough to get off blocks with them as well. He’s a good cover guy, and that position has to play a lot of man coverage for us. He’s a good blitzer. He’s very physical. He runs really well.”

In simpler terms, the coaches wanted Franklin to have a direct impact on more plays than he did as a free safety. They also saw how 2016 nickel starter Richard Allen, two inches shorter than Franklin and 30 pounds lighter, was too small to handle some of the American Athletic Conference receivers he covered.

“You’d like a bigger guy who can play man coverage,” Fritz said. “We feel like we’ve got that with Jarrod.”

Steady for his entire career, Franklin wants to be spectacular. He had an interception in his first game as a true freshman and did not log another until last October against Massachusetts. He broke up only one other pass as a junior and has 3½ career sacks.

His new role should give him a better opportunity to do more than just register tackles — he has 176 to this point — particularly with the secondary’s versatility. New starting free safety Taris Shenall practiced plenty at nickelback a year ago, and strong safety Roderic Teamer is a two-dimensional player as well.

“We can all play different positions in the backfield, so nobody knows which position we’re going to be playing each game,” Franklin said. “I’m definitely covering more. We’re switching up, giving the offense different looks and trying to disguise more, so it’s nice.”

After tearing three knee ligaments in a freak collision during spring practice in 2014, Franklin returned in 2015 as if he never had been hurt. He described the rehabilitation as the most grueling process in his life, but he added it made his leg stronger than ever.

He would love for all of his hard work to pay off in a huge senior season, making up for the rough times that included constant losing over the past three years and a coaching change.

“There wasn’t much consistency, but there definitely were moments I was blessed to have,” he said. “I’m going to finish it off strong and see if I can up the ante.”

Lagniappe

Tulane practiced at the Saints’ indoor facility on Tuesday for the 10th time this preseason. … Starting right offensive tackle Keyshawn McLeod is out with a leg injury, but Fritz said he expected him back for practice next week in time to get ready for Grambling. … Fritz added he hoped backup center Hunter Knighton, who is capable of playing anywhere on the line, would be available early next week after spraining a knee early in preseason camp. … Running back Corey Dauphine, sitting out the year as a transfer (Texas Tech), will miss at least two weeks with a leg injury.

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