This is a fairly exciting and interesting time to be a Cal fan. Whether you love them or hate them, there are a LOT of changes happening with Cal Athletics! What does that mean? A lot to learn about the new faces that will be ignoring their families in and around Memorial Stadium. One of those new faces is Tony Franklin, Mr. Offense himself.
One of Tony Franklin's stops was Auburn where he coached for a brief period of time. Let's learn more:
After spending two seasons with the Trojans, Franklin was hired on December 12, 2007 by Tommy Tuberville to serve as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Auburn University. Franklin implemented his new spread offense with only 8 days of practice, prior to the 2007 Chick-fil-A Bowl. The new system proved quite effective as Auburn bested their season average in all offensive categories, posting 423 yards of offense (233 passing / 190 rushing), had 24 first downs and ran an 11-year high 93 offensive plays, all despite playing against the #6 defense in the nation.
The Tigers' offense was much less impressive at the start of the 2008 season. Auburn started the season with a somewhat disappointing 4-2 record, losing to LSU and Vanderbilt and having close calls against two struggling teams in Mississippi State and Tennessee. After the first six games, Auburn ranked 104th in total offense out of all FBS teams.
On Wednesday, October 8, 2008, Auburn head coach Tuberville fired Franklin, citing a lack of offensive production from Franklin's spread offense, and noting Auburn's diminishing rank in most of the offensive categories in the FBS. Auburn went on to win only one of the final six games, finishing with a 5–7 record. Some saw this as proof that even though Franklin was able to use his offense in lesser conferences and against lesser defenses, in the SEC where defense reigns, his version of the spread could not work.
Auburn. Got it! So, we contacted our SBN brethren over at College And Magnolia to talk turkey as it were. D. Miller there was kind enough to rock some answers for us. His answers to our hard hitting questions are below. Go check it out. Many thanks to D. Miller and College And Magnolia for helping educate us Cal fans on the man, the myth, the legend, Tony Franklin!
1. What stands out most in your mind when you think of Tony Franklin's offense? Are there certain plays or formations that make you grimace?
One thing I remember most vividly is the pre-snap action. On almost every play the team would get to the line, survey the defensive alignment, then look to the sideline for the play. This was so pronounced that even the offensive line would stand straight up and peer towards the coaches. Many of our fans began to refer to this as the "meerkat" (do a google image search, or you-tube the old Animal Planet show Meerkat Manor).
This action has its advantages and disadvantages, as any other system does. One advantage is that is gives the offense a glimpse into how the opposing team is lining up defensively, and gives an opportunity to read man or zone. In a perfect world this should give the offensive playcaller a strategic advantage. However, in the SEC most defensive coordinators are skilled at disguising coverages. One disadvantage is that for a fast paced spread offense, this action slows you down. It's counter intuitive to what you're trying to accomplish by speeding up your offense.
Another thing that I remember, and that bothered me about his scheme was the offensive line. Franklin wanted to run fast, and he felt like he needed slimmer, more nimble linemen to accomplish this. In 2007 out offensive linemen averaged well over 300 pounds. In 2008 under Franklin, our heaviest lineman was just shy of 290. Each one was asked to lose weight in the offseason in order to be lighter and able to withstand the constant running. This resulted in a line that was weaker and not as physical at the point of attack. In losing weight to meet Franklin's demands they also lost strength, causing them to lose many battles in the trenches.The SEC is known for big, physical defensive tackles. The smaller offensive line just wasn't able to match up.
As for a play that made me cringe, it was probably the WR screen. I'm not sure if that's a product of hating that play, or that we didn't have a quarterback that could make it work. Of the two QB's that took the most snaps, one couldn't complete the pass and the other made it look like the ball was floating through the air in slow motion. Every time it was called I prayed that it wouldn't end up as a pick 6 for the defense.
2. What's your sense of how Franklin developed players and fit them into his scheme? Did you see changes in the offense to take advantage of individual strengths?
Unfortunately, we didn't see this to what I believe to be it's full potential at Auburn. There just wasn't a large enough sample size to get a good feel for what it could be. With that said, Auburn's 2008 offense was fairly balanced. Auburn didn't have a quarterback in 2008. Three players received snaps, one a true freshman, and another a JuCo transfer with a bum shoulder. That obviously limited the effectiveness of the passing game. Kodi Burns, the true freshman, was more of adept at running than passing, but he had the stronger arm. Chris Todd was a JuCo transfer that followed Franklin.
His problem was a lingering shoulder injury that was just never 100%. That limited his ability to throw downfield. With that said, Auburn averaged 165 yards per game through the air and Seven different players caught at least 15 passes for the season. Probably the biggest weapon Auburn had on offense was at running back with Ben Tate, now with the Houston Texans. Considering the struggling passing game, he probably should have utilized the running back more than he did.
3. How does the Franklin version of the "Air Raid" (or, as we've started calling it "BearRaid") operate in the red zone? Does it bog down like some pass happy offenses do (e.g., the run and shoot)?
That was one of the biggest gripes of Auburn fans during Franklin's short time here. The offense was able to move the ball and vary the playcalling between the 20's, but when they got inside the redzone it was like they hit a wall. The field compressed and there was less space for receivers to get open. The running game was not physical enough to power it in on short yardage. So, yes, it did seem to bog down in the redzone.
4. The tight end: does Franklin use it? How?
He did. Auburn had a senior tight end that year and he ended up tied for third on the team with 20 receptions. He was a solid blocker as well. Franklin liked to use the tight end, and running backs, to run a sideline wheel route. The tight ends also caught a few passes on seam routes and short curls.
5. Did you ever have any personal experiences with Tony Franklin? If so, how were they?
I never met the man personally. I'm not sure many outside of the athletic department did during his time here. By most accounts he rarely slept, and stayed in the office working on a gameplan or watching film.
6. How was Tony Franklin as a recruiter?
I don't think we had enough of a sample size with him to make a fair evaluation of him as a recruiter. He joined the coaching staff in December, a week or so before our bowl game, during the quiet period, and was packing up his office after the season's sixth game. The type of athletes he recruited were small, quick playmakers. The running backs Auburn went after in his time here were smaller, scatback types. The receivers were also smaller, quick guys. Where some pro-style offenses look for prototypical size/speed combo athletes, Franklin wanted quick playmakers that can get the ball in space and make you miss.
7. What was the overall feeling regarding Tony Franklin during his time with Auburn?
There was some excitement surrounding the potential of the offense following the overtime win over Clemson in the Chick-fil-A Bowl in Atlanta to close out the 2007 season. Franklin had just a week or ten days to install his offense and did so fairly well for that game. Auburn didn't get off to a bad start in 2008. However, as the season drug on it became more apparent that there was discord among the coaching staff. The old staff didn't seem to fully buy in to what Franklin was doing and it all fell apart rather quickly. I'm not sure we'll ever know what happened inside the confines of the football complex to cause the schism, but it was the downfall of Franklin, and ultimately Tuberville.
8. Auburn famously (or infamously) fired Franklin only six games into the 2008 season, one of those games an epic 3-2 win over Mississippi State. Why did the Tigers pull the plug so early on Franklin?
That Mississippi state game set football back decades. It was painful to watch.
Like I said, I don't believe Tuberville and the rest of his offensive staff ever fully bought in to what Franklin wanted to do with the offense. It was a complete departure from what they had done for years, and some of the staff were seemingly pretty set in their ways. Tuberville was loyal to his coaching staff, to a fault, and that led to the failed experiment, and the ultimate departure of Tuberville himself. Franklin came in with an idea to spread things out and toss the ball around more. He wanted to change the blocking schemes and do things a certain way. What doomed him from the start was that the staff he inherited wasn't willing to change. Tuberville sensed things in the locker room and football offices weren't going well and his reaction was to remove Franklin from the equation. Was it the right move? No. It cost Tuberville his job as well. Fact is that Franklin has been fairly successful just about everywhere else he has coached.
9. Have to ask: Tommy Tuberville to Cincinnati. Surprised?
My initial reaction was shock. But, the more I thought about it, the less surprised in the move I became. Now, Cincinnati is a bit of a surprising destination, but Tuberville has been looking looking for a way out of Lubbock ever since he got there. I heard someone after the announcement say that Tubs is on the Benjamin Button track to coaching, he's going backwards. But, looking at the job, it's not that bad of a move for him. It's closer to his family in Tennessee and he has a prior relationship with Cinci's AD Whit Babcock from his days working at Auburn. Brian Kelly and Butch Jones have built the Bearcats into a solid program, and I expect Tuberville to have some success there.