FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas defensive coordinator Willy Robinson was winding down after an emotional rant last week when he was asked about middle linebacker Jerry Franklin.
Robinson had spent the previous 10 minutes questioning his defense's heart and toughness, and he even had a few things to say about himself. But he took a much different tone when it came to Franklin.
"That guy has stepped up in the front of that huddle," Robinson said. "That's a God-dang leader for us on that football field."
Only a few months ago, Arkansas' new coaching staff didn't know what to make of Franklin, a former safety who was relegated to the scout team as a freshman last season.
He wasn't the hardest hitter, still looked raw at linebacker and had a tendency to think too much instead of simply reacting on the practice field.
But over the past two weeks, Franklin has given Robinson a reason to be optimistic, even at a time when most of Arkansas' experienced linebackers are nursing injuries.
"I feel like I'm doing all right, but I know I can still get better," Franklin said. "I've got a lot more work to get done."
So far, though, Arkansas' coaches have been pleasantly surprised with the progress they've seen from Franklin. The redshirt freshman has had a knack for getting his hands on the football in practice, and he's starting to develop into a more physical player.
In essence, Franklin looks like Arkansas' starting middle linebacker. He has left little doubt that the job is his, and that should come as a relief considering all the other questions that still remain for the Razorbacks at linebacker.
"He's grown a lot since spring. He's gotten a pretty good grasp of what we're trying to get done on defense," Arkansas linebackers coach Reggie Johnson said. "Right now, it's getting (him) into being a little bit more physical and playing a little bit faster, and he'll be about where we want him."
To prepare for his new role at middle linebacker, Franklin said he put on 22 pounds in the offseason. At 6-foot-2, 229 pounds, he looks considerably bigger than he did in the spring and less like the defensive back he was when he arrived on campus last year.
"When you're sitting on scout team, it's kind of disappointing. At the same time, it's a good thing because it really helps you out (with) getting stronger, bigger and faster," Franklin said. "Basically, I just did a lot of hard work to try to get to where I'm at right now."
Robinson said Franklin has shown that he has learned how to play middle linebacker without getting bogged down by overanalyzing things. The position is becoming second nature to him, which wasn't the case a few months ago.
In the spring, Arkansas' coaches wanted Franklin to get in the huddle and make the defensive calls. The responsibility tends to come with playing middle linebacker, but the coaching staff noticed that Franklin was spending too much time thinking and not reacting during plays.
So Johnson thought it would be best to take the playcalling duties away from Franklin, and the difference was immediate.
"All of a sudden, he started connecting all the dots and seeing things and being physical and running downhill," Robinson said of Franklin. "Now that might not seem like it's a big thing, but it's a little thing. Now he's gained his confidence."
Coincidentally, Franklin is again relaying the defensive calls in the huddle. With senior outside linebacker Elston Forte sidelined with an undisclosed injury, Franklin has taken control of the huddle.
And he has solidified his place as Arkansas' starting middle linebacker since freshman Tenarius Wright went down with an ankle injury.
"He wants to win, and I think he understands that he wants to be a good, solid SEC linebacker," Johnson said of Franklin. "And he's slowly grasping what it takes to be that guy."
Breaking Them Down
Sure Thing: As odd as it might sound, Arkansas doesn't have any guarantees at linebacker. Senior Elston Forte is a captain and the team's most experienced linebacker, but he was struggling in practice even before he got injured.
Big Question: Injuries and off-the-field issues have left Arkansas very thin at linebacker. There are serious depth issues now that starter Freddie Fairchild has been kicked off the team and backup Freddy Burton has been suspended for the first two games of the season.
Top Newcomer: Freshman Khiry Battle has impressed coaches since being moved last week from safety to weakside linebacker. The Razorbacks can use all the help they can get at linebacker, and Battle has already shown that he can be an immediate factor this season.
Quotable: "For Jerry, the biggest thing for him is, I'm not asking him to do anything extraordinary. I just need him to execute the defense and make the plays that come to him, just be a solid tackler." — Arkansas linebackers coach Reggie Johnson on middle linebacker Jerry Franklin
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