AS A YOUNG SPEED DEMON IN LOS ANGELES, JOHNATHAN FRANKLIN HAD PLENTY OF EARLY practice weaving through narrow lanes and eluding his tormentors. "I was always running away from whuppings," Franklin laughs. But it wasn't until his first year playing tackle football, in fifth grade, that he earned his nickname, in a footrace with teammates on a dirt track before practice one day. "As I was running, dirt was coming up behind me like water does with a Jet Ski, so they started calling me Jet, and it has followed me ever since," he says.
Franklin is still kicking up a storm. Named for the second straight year to the Doak Walker and Maxwell award watch lists, he ranked 10th in the Pac-12 in rushing (69.7 yards per game) in 2011, and his 5.9 yards per carry was fourth best in a conference loaded with running-back talent. The 5' 11" 195-pounder was UCLA's leading rusher with 976 yards and five touchdowns, a performance that followed a breakout 2010 during which he gained 1,127 yards. Heading into this season, 1,062 yards lie between Franklin and the alltime Bruins rushing record set by Gaston Green (1984--87).
New coach Jim Mora recognizes a team leader and an ally in Franklin. "You can count on him to do what he's supposed to do, to have a great attitude and to promote your message to the rest of the team," Mora says. "He's a natural leader. He doesn't say a lot. His actions speak for him. Every player on our team has a tremendous amount of respect for him as a person and as a player."
While Franklin is a man of few words on the field, off of it the political science major (with aspirations for political office) rarely shuts up. "I love talking, I love cracking jokes," Franklin says. "Sometimes people can't get me to stop." He performs his original poetry at open mikes in campus coffeehouses and libraries, where he is often recognized. "A lot of people are surprised to see a football player doing poetry," he says.
Franklin has confounded stereotypes before. He grew up with his older sister, Tierra, and their mother, Pamela Andrews (a health insurance administrator), in South Central L.A. There he heard helicopters and police sirens outside every night. Today he frequently visits his old neighborhood to speak at churches and schools, including his alma mater, Dorsey High. "I grew up with a lot of people who aren't here right now—they're dead or in jail," Franklin says. "I love being an example, a walking testimony that if you just focus and commit to something, it will happen."
This season Franklin's goals are simple: work hard and leave it all on the field. "We want to beat the rivals, win championships, break records, but if you focus too much on that, you won't handle what you need to handle," he says. "We need to just work. If we give it all we have, then we'll do those things."
With a new coaching regime, that extra sweat equity is vital because each player must prove himself again. "It does not allow me to be content or complacent, and I love that," Franklin says. "That's what I needed and what we all needed."
Mora says Franklin is primed to shine in the team's new no-huddle, spread-option offense: "We're getting him in space as much as he can, [which] will accentuate the things that he does well."
Franklin is looking forward to the chance to carve a wake all over the field. "This offense allows us to just play old-school, backyard football," he says. This Jet isn't cooling down anytime soon.