New Cal offensive coordinator Tony Franklin was the man behind the curtain last fall when Sonny Dykes’ Louisiana Tech team led the nation in scoring and total yards.
His spread option system worked at Kentucky, Troy and Middle Tennessee State before La Tech, although Franklin jokes it worked well enough in his one season at Auburn to get the entire staff fired.
Before becoming a college football coach, Franklin, 55, spent 16 years teaching high school history and political science. Beginning Monday, spring football will be all about teaching Cal’s players an entirely new way to practice and play football.
Here’s my conversation with Franklin:
What is your first priority for spring practice?
“Job One is to build a belief system and teach them how to practice. The offense will be installed in three days. They’ll have everything, basically. Then it’s just a matter of the details. That’s the hard thing for a lot of guys. Coaches are different. Some guys are scheme coaches — everything’s about me having the chalkboard and drawing a better play.
“Our deal is going to run a few plays and try to get really good at doing those little things right. We’ve got to get these guys to understand the importance of every rep, that the drills that we do, there’s a reason we do things, and there’s a reason we’re a stickler for doing it right. If we do it right, you’ll play. If you don’t you won’t. There’s not much gray area in what we do.”
How much of what you do is based on changing formations?
“We’re not a huge formation team, either. When I was at Middle Tennessee, we had a really productive offense. We were one back (and four wideouts) all the time. I say that because our quarterback was a special runner. We had a need to be very simple. It made us faster. Last year at LaTech we used more formation stuff. Last two years got more into the power formations. Mainly I did it to have something for the defense they hadn’t seen.
“The other reason is I try to get people on the field if they’re good players — it builds camaraderie. Our offensive line at LaTech was real good — we had about seven good O-linemen. Most line coaches don’t like playing more than five. What I would do is create formations to get those guys on the field. We played a senior who had played maybe five snaps his entire career. We put him at one of the running back slots with a 99 number and had him go hit people in the mouth. That was a formation where he got to play 15 to 20 snaps a game.
“And we had other formations we had a tackle who was almost as good as the starters, so we created a formation to get him on the field.”
How quickly does this offense begin to come together?
“Sometimes it’s ugly early while you’re trying to figure it out. It’s not unusual for it to be halfway through the season and all of a sudden it’s, `OK, we’ve got it now.’ And it starts to click.”
Talk about how you create your fast tempo through practice:
“Everything we do in practice is fast. There’s a lot of people who try to play fast on Saturdays and they can’t because they don’t practice fast. Our whole deal is we’re going to practice extremely fast and get a lot of reps. We’re going to coach on film and we’re going to coach a whole lot of how we’re going to play on Saturday. So if you’re at practice you’re going to see a lot of team drill stuff where there’s no coaches on the field. The first few days there might be, but there won’t be after that.”
So this is not only different for the players, but for coaches, right?
“That’s how people fail because they don’t practice that way. You’ve got to commit to it. That’s the hard part for (coaches) who think they want to do this. They’re used to talking in practice, stoppping and coaching. We don’t stop. If we’re coaching, we’re coaching on the run. Our coaches have got to coach. That’s why I like young people around — they can run better than me.”
How do you expect the quarterback picture to unfold?
“There’s not really a timetable because I’m hoping somebody just jumps off the screen and says, `I’m phenomenal. Play me.’ That makes it easy. I had a deal at Troy where two days into spring practice I named a starter, and he just got there. But he was far and above better than the rest of the guys. He was player of the year in that conference for two years, so that was easy. I’ve had other places, like Auburn, where we couldn’t figure it out and nobody was good enough. We coached ’em good enough to get fired.”
You’ve got five scholarship quarterbacks and two walkons. Do all seven figure in the mix at the start of spring?
“To me, they’re all the same. Doesn’t matter if they’re a walkon or scholarship. I’m going to watch them and once I decide this guy’s not ready or may never be ready, we’ll have that conversation and those need to go away.”
What qualities are you looking for in a quarterback?
“Find a way to win. We’ve done it throwing and we’ve done it with a guy who was a phenomenal thrower in Tim Couch (at Kentucky), a phenomenal runner in Dwight Dasher (at Middle Tennessee State), combination of really good at both in Omar Haugabook (at Troy). And last year Colby Cameronr (at Louisiana Tech) was just one of the most accurate throwers in the history of college football.
“We want a really competitive, smart, loyal good kid. Which one of these guys can win? Who takes you down and scores touchdowns.”
Does he have to be a runner?
“You want to be able — if you drop back on third-and-5 and they ignore him — he can take off and get the first down.”
What are the other attributes you need from him?
“Accuracy and don’t turn it over. You turn it over we lose. You don’t we usually win. You go back and look at our season, we don’t turn it over for 10 weeks and we’re pretty darned good. The last two weeks we turn it over and we’re not very good. We score 40-something points both games and we lose.”
What’s your response to the impression that your version of the spread offense relies on 75 passes every game?
“I could care less how we get there. Just so happens the numbers tend to be balanced, and not really by design. Because I’ll throw it 70 times if I think we have to to win. But I’ll run it 90 to win, too, Usually it balances itself out.”
How difficult will it be to get through spring ball without your top two returning backs, Brendan Bigelow and Daniel Lasco?
“Nobody gets fired for losing the spring football game. It’ll be ugly at times, no doubt. It’ll be a great feeling-out process. Plus we get to look at some other guys.”
What’s your evaluation of your wide receiver group?
“I watched film of the ones we played and there’s some intriguing characters who are going to be fun to play with. The biggest issue is there’s not a lot of depth. There’s only five guys on scholarship. Normally we would have probably 12. We added three. It’s hard to do it all in one year. It’ll be fun because there’s some different body types who can do different stuff.”
Does the tight end have a role in your offense?
“My whole deal with tight ends, I’d love to have a good tight end. But the key word is `good.’ I don’t need a body just to be on the field to occupy the space. They need to be able to run. If I’m going to put somebody in the box to bring another defender in the box, they need to be able to block. If they can’t block, why did I bring them into the box to bring another defender to have the guy get his butt whipped.”
Offensive line was an issue for this team last season. What are your thoughts about this group so far?
“I like what I see watching the agility drills and early-morning stuff we can do. I love their attiude and their look and their intelligence. I watch the film from last year and they’re a well-coached football team. Jim (Michalczik) did a good job with them. I think they’ll be a strength of our program. We were thrilled with the class we’re bringing in.”
Do you think the players have a real sense of what they’re about to get into — especially the tempo?
“The neat thing so far about this group is they’re smart and they’re eager. They’re listening. I haven’t seen resistance. You’ve got guys that look hungry and they want to. Their belief system should be good because we’re walking in with an offense that was one of the best in the history of college football last year.
“So we have their attention: Here’s what we do. It always works, How fast it works depends on you. Now if you want to be slow and fight it and say I haven’t done it that way before, then three years from now you can watch us play in the Rose Bowl. Or you can make it happen now. This thing can happen immediately overnight. It’s up to you. If you buy in immediately, then we can be good immediately.”
You have no doubts your offense translates to this league, this level?
“The league and level, that’s all (baloney). We played Texas A&M last year and scored 57 points against a team that I think Alabama, Florida and Arkansas combined didn’t score that many against them (actually, a combined 59 points). It doesn’t matter. There’s good football all over the country.”