The return of safety Darion Monroe and linebacker Nico Marley gives the Tulane football team some proven star power.
But the recovery of lesser-known nickelback Jarrod Franklin should provide just as big a jolt for the defense.
Franklin, a third-year sophomore from University High, drew rave reviews from teammates and coaches in the spring of 2014 before tearing three knee ligaments in a gruesome practice collision. The injury forced him to miss all of last season, robbing the Green Wave of one of its most promising playmakers.
He’s back, and at least to coach Curtis Johnson’s eyes, looking better than ever.
“What I see is three guys I know are going to tackle everybody — Marley, Franklin and Monroe,” Johnson said early in preseason drills. “Just Jarrod Franklin coming back gives a presence to our defense. He can run; he’s athletic; he can cover; he’s one of these guys that can do everything.”
That he can do anything is the product of a long rehabilitation process. Franklin, who tore his ACL, his MCL and ripped off a piece of his meniscus, returned with a knee brace this spring but no longer appears slowed.
In the first preseason practice, he raced into the end zone to intercept a long pass with ease.
“I definitely feel 100 percent having rehabbed last summer and then this summer, so I’m in the best shape of my life,” he said. “My knee is stronger than ever. My speed is great, just like it was in high school.”
Franklin already proved himself as a true freshman in 2013, playing in every game and starting twice for a talented defense that allowed the second-fewest points of any team in Conference USA. He opened with four tackles and an interception against Jackson State, then made seven stops in a 45-3 victory against UTEP in November.
His absence clearly affected the Wave defense last season as it tried to replace six starters. Brandon LeBeau began the year as a first-team nickelback but was not as effective as predecessor Derrick Strozier, and the coaches soon settled on using a third cornerback, Taurean Nixon. Nixon, though, was nowhere near as physical as Franklin would have been.
“I feel like our defense can be just as good as we were two years ago,” Franklin said. “We have a lot of talent that nobody knows about, a lot of people with experience that haven’t really played a lot.”
Count Franklin among that number — a guy the coaches already trust, even though he has not been in a game for more than a year.
In 2013, Strozier (5-foot-8, 181 pounds) had 54 tackles with three interceptions and a team-high 14 pass breakups. Franklin (6-1, 208) can play the same role but with a bigger body.
“He’s one of those special players, and we’ve been talking about it since spring football,” co-defensive coordinator Lionel Washington said. “He is very explosive and has a great understanding of how to play the game. We’ll just have to wait and see what he’s going to do when the lights come on.”
Last year was mostly darkness for Franklin and the entire team as Tulane slipped to 3-9 off its 7-6 performance in 2013. The experience was too painful for him to watch.
“Knowing you could have helped and you could have been there for your team, but at the same time you couldn’t, it hurt,” he said. “It was really hard. That’s why I didn’t really travel (for road games). I didn’t want to travel. I said, ‘I’ll stay home.’ ”
Running around with boundless energy on his repaired knee, Franklin is all in this time.
“This is our breakout year,” he said. “We don’t have any more excuses. We are not young anymore. We are very experienced now, so we just have to make it happen.”
After Tulane practiced for seven consecutive days, including twice Tuesday, Johnson pulled a surprise by calling off Wednesday’s workout and taking everyone swimming at the Reily Center on campus. The Wave will practice twice Thursday and have its first scrimmage of the preseason Saturday morning at Yulman Stadium. ... Intense heat has been an issue, slowing down practices even though they are starting at 8 a.m. before the hottest conditions arrive. Said Johnson: “We actually are going a little bit long because we’re really taking our time. We’re not doing much running until the end of practice. We’re just being smart.”