Normally, you start building a puzzle from the outside in. You start with the corner pieces, work along the edges and then fill in the center. New California offensive coordinator Tony Franklin's methodology is more inside out. Franklin's offense starts in the middle. Literally.
While it's a bit of a misnomer that the center calls the plays, as it were, in the Franklin System, he does make calls and adjustments to the line, and barks out the cadence -- something quite unique in both college and professional offenses.
"When I was out of coaching, and I was doing nothing but my consulting business, I got to thinking about when we were at Kentucky, and every time that we played on the road, we had to use a silent cadence," Franklin says. "You go to Florida, you go to Georgia, you go to LSU, you use a silent cadence. Half the season, you're not doing what you practice most of the time. I thought, you're letting the defense dictate to you, so I decided that when I got back into coaching again, I was going to try the center doing the cadence, because I knew the offensive linemen could always hear each other."
That opportunity came for Franklin when he became the head coach and general manager of the Lexington Horsemen of the National Indoor Football League.
"Believe it or not the loudest stadium I've ever been in, in my life, was the Ohio Valley Greyhounds in indoor football. It was about 6,000 people, and I think 5,500 of ‘em were drunk," Franklin says, in his aw-shucks Kentucky drawl. "They were obnoxious, loud, abusive and it was the most fun I've ever had coaching. We never had an issue with our center calling the cadence, so when I got back in at Troy, the first year we went there, we went and played at Florida State, we went and played at Nebraska with the center doing the cadence, and we never had an issue with it. Never had a problem with it. It became a really neat thing, and a really good thing. It also helps the offensive line, I think, get off the ball a little bit better, because they hear it so much cleaner, and it especially helps the center to get off the ball better."
A center calling the cadence helps cut down on false starts along the offensive line -- a problem that plagued the Bears last season. It communicates the most necessary information to those players who need to hear it the clearest, and they hear that call from right next to them, instead of 15 feet behind them, as would be the case with the quarterback calling the cadence in the shotgun, which, Franklin says, is about 90 percent of the time in his offense.
"Exactly," Franklin says. "The guard is sitting there, two feet away, and the tackle's another two feet away, so instead of a guy being 15 feet away, the farthest guy from the line of scrimmage is about six feet away."
At Louisiana Tech, Franklin says, he was spoiled in that his center Steven Warner -- generously listed at 6-foot, 300 pounds (but, according to Franklin, is more like 5-foot-10 ½ and 290 pounds) -- was a veritable expert at running his unorthodox system. At Cal, Franklin will have quite the selection of big brains to put in the middle, from 2012 Pac-12 All-Academic selection and Dallas Christian valedictorian Chris Adcock to redshirt freshman Matt Cochran -- who graduated in the top five of his class at Atwater (Calif.) Buhach Colony -- to 2011 first-team Pac-12 All-Academic selection Mark Brazinski.
"That's a big relief, because that's been a concern, because I got spoiled the last three years at Louisiana Tech," Franklin chuckles. "We had a young man named Steven Warner, and he was just an absolutely great football player. He was brilliant. He was so smart. He was a really good student, and he does so much for us. He has to make so many calls and adjustments, like all centers do, but with ours, the added thing we give to our center is that he's going to do the cadence."
While the focus of many fans has been on the Air Raid lineage of Franklin and head coach Sonny Dykes's offense, Franklin says that taking one look at his system will show a key difference -- they not only like to run the ball; they need to run the ball.
"If you watched us play, and you went back to 1997 and ‘98 and you watched Kentucky play, you wouldn't think that you were watching anybody that came from the same family tree," says Franklin, who, like Dykes, coached under the patron saint of the Air Raid, Hal Mumme. "If you watched Mike Leach's team play at Washington State, and you watch us, you wouldn't think that we ever coached together or that we ever knew each other, because we are uniquely different. We play fast, we do run the football and we run it well. We believe that you have to do that in order to win a championship."
Last season, the Bulldogs rushed for 227.17 yards per game -- 18th in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
"Well, for us, to call it an Air Raid is really not the right word to use, because we run the ball usually as much as we throw it," says Franklin, who's offense ran the ball 521 times and passed 533 times in 2012. "I'll be concerned if we can't run the ball, because that's a huge part of us. Looking at the offensive line the other day, I was excited about that. I think those guys can really fire off the ball."
Running the football starts with a stout offensive line, and Franklin knows that as well as anyone.
"The No. 1 thing that you want is, you want guys that can move, and guys have to get in shape," Franklin says of his ideal big uglies. "If a guy is sluggish and luggy and has too much belly on him, then he's going to have to get in a lot better shape, because the tempo that we play at, it's just not conducive to the big waddling guys that just kind of waddle into people and stuff. You're looking for more athletic guys that have toughness -- that's a big characteristic with any offensive line. You want guys that are big and can move, but we've proven at times that we can do it with guys that are smaller."
This weekend, Franklin and the Bears' new staff got their first offensive line commit in 6-foot-7, 310-pound Erik Bunte -- who certainly fits the mold of a long, lean offensive tackle. Freddie Tagaloa (6-foot-8, 340), Christian Okafor (6-foot-6, 310), Steven Moore (6-foot-6, 280) and Brian Farley (6-foot-7, 291) also fall into that category.
"I was really pleased when I looked at their body types, and I saw their body types, and I believe they were very well coached," says Franklin. "I think Jim [Michalczik] did a really good job, and I think that their physical bodies look really good. They seem to be a group that's eager. I think the one thing that I've always found every place that I've gone to that's worried that they're not good on offense, is that there's a lot of shoulder slump, there's not a lot of confidence. You see that, and I think that when they left the meeting the other day, they stood a little taller. They were a little bit more excited, because I told them that we have an answer, and it's going to work. It's just a matter of how fast it works. That's going to be up to them."
That answer is speed. It's the cornerstone upon which the rest of Franklin's offense rests, though rest isn't a word you'll hear much coming out of Cal's practices.
"I think one of the biggest things is playing fast," says Franklin. "When you play fast, it's not conducive to making a thousand offensive line calls. One of the things that offensive line coaches like to do, and players, they want to make sure that every play is the perfect play, and every play's not going to be perfect. That's just not the way it works. It's not all perfect, and there's no way that it's always going to be perfect, so you have to understand that and just play fast. Sometimes you come off the ball and block an area, not worrying about being in the perfect scheme every time."
Like the rest of Franklin's offensive scheme, the way his offensive line works is predicated on not letting the defense dictate the play. It's all about control. It puts the offense into the driver's seat, always attacking and pushing.
"If the defensive guys were to tell us what they're going to do, that'd make it a lot easier, but they never do, so you can never be perfect," says Franklin. "The offensive line coaches are a lot like defensive coordinators -- they're very anal. They worry about everything, every single thing that can possibly happen, and that's a thing you just can't do. You can't protect against everything that can happen. Sometimes, that's why I love playing tempo and playing fast, because it doesn't really matter. When you get to playing fast, you can miss blocks and the guy can run by him, but the other guy's tired. That's the biggest thing that we do that's a little bit uniquely different."
Unique and different are the watch words with Franklin's offense, and whether that's being unpredictable with play calls or unconventional in the way his offenses practice, the goal is to invest all the agency in the offense, so that it is proactive, rather than reactive.
"Well, we're big believers in having just a few concepts and you can create any number of plays that you want to when you have the concepts in place," Franklin says. "We run the zone a bunch and we run power a bunch, which is what the NFL does. The offensive linemen want to play in the NFL, well, you've got to be a good zone blocker, you've got to be a good power blocker, so that's basically the two plays that we run."
While Dykes remains focused on hiring a defensive coordinator, the biggest task on Franklin's docket is finding an offensive line coach who meshes with his philosophy.
"Sonny and I will do it together. It'll be a team effort," Franklin says. "There's certain characteristics that we're looking for: Mainly someone who's willing to do things differently. We do some things that are uniquely different, so that's something that not everyone's willing to do. You have to make sure it's the right fit for that."
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