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September 30, 2008

Franklin proving worthy of play-calling duties

James Franklin was happy at Kansas State. He was coordinating an improving offense for a rising program. He was also developing an exciting talent at quarterback in Josh Freeman. Franklin wasn't going to leave all of that to be "offensive coordinator" in name only at Maryland.

"I talked and discussed that with Ralph (Friedgen) before I took this job," Franklin said. "I wasn't going to take it unless it was my offense. And that has been the case."

So far, so good for Franklin, who not only is running a Terrapins' attack that has improved from 92nd to 64th in the nation, but also is closer to family. And that matters for Franklin, whose mother died last year.

"No doubt, that made taking this job easier," said Franklin, who spent five seasons as Maryland's wide receivers coach (2000-04) before running Kansas State's offense the past two seasons. "I like where we are at on offense, but we can get better. We've only just begun."

Friedgen is one of four prominent coaches who ceded play-calling duties and gave them to a staff member before this season. Notre Dame's Charlie Weis handed off to Mike Haywood, California's Jeff Tedford hired Frank Cignetti and South Carolina's Steve Spurrier gave son Steve Jr. the reins.

It takes trust for a coach to hand over the reins of an offense. In the case of each of these coaches, the offense was their baby. Play-calling was what made them great.

But make no mistake: These shifts in duties also are about getting all four programs back on track. Pain is the touchstone for all change. If things were going well for Friedgen, Weis, Spurrier and Tedford, it's doubtful they would have surrendered play-calling duties.

Charlie Taaffe was offensive coordinator in Friedgen's first five seasons in College Park. Maryland set school records for points in a season in 2001 (390) and 2002 (451) under Taaffe, and the Terps won the ACC in 2001 and went to the Peach Bowl in 2002. But he resigned after the 2005 season. Friedgen conducted a national search but didn't fill the position and ran the offense himself the past two seasons. The attack struggled, ranking 88th in the nation in 2006 and 92nd last season, and the losses mounted. Something had to change.

"I was looking for somebody who had been with us, and I was looking for somebody who had been successful," Friedgen said, "and James had been very successful at Kansas State."

While it's a great opportunity for Franklin to put his mark on Maryland's program, Friedgen is relieved of the burden of operating the offense. Now, he can focus on the totality of the program, devoting more time to every aspect of the team. Still, Friedgen looks over Franklin's shoulder. After all, it's his job on the line.

"Ralph probably is involved a little bit more in the offense than he is with the other areas of the team," Franklin said. "He'll offer suggestions during the week, but it's still my offense. We discussed this before I took the job. I told him I wanted to bring in my offense. I didn't want to come here and run his offense. If I was running his offense, I'm sure he would be more involved."

So, how have the new play-calling arrangements worked at California, Notre Dame, South Carolina and Maryland? It's a mixed bag. Here's a look at each program's total offense and scoring averages, along with national rankings, this season, as well as the numbers each head coach put up in those categories in their other seasons on the job.
Maryland2001439.7/16th 35.5/12th
2003421.7/28th 31.2/27th
Notre Dame2005477.3/10th36.7/8th
South Carolina2005315.9/100th23.7/75th
2007371.8/78th 26.1/71st

Steve Spurrier Jr. already was on his dad's South Carolina staff as receivers coach when he was given the offensive coordinator title. And it largely has been just that: a title. It's still the Ol' Ball Coach's offense.

"Things haven't changed as much as I thought," said Spurrier, who has served as his own coordinator dating to his days coaching Duke from 1987-89. "I have been calling about 75 percent of the plays still this season. I wish play-calling was our biggest problem."

The Gamecocks are 3-2 with an offense that ranks 79th in the nation (342.4 ypg).

Like Spurrier, Weis made his name calling plays. Weis didn't need anyone's help in his first two seasons in South Bend, going 19-6 with two BCS bowls. Of course, it helped having Brady Quinn as quarterback. Once Quinn and several playmakers departed, the Irish offense bottomed out in 2007, ranking last in the nation in 2007 during a horrendous 3-9 season. With pressure mounting, Weis opted to take a step back and gave Haywood play-calling duties. It has been a liberating experience for Weis.

"I think that the whole staff got better," said Weis, who also lets Haywood script the first few plays. "It's an evolving process right there, but the whole process continues getting better every week."

Weis still wears a headset, listening to what's going on, and he looks over and approves game plans. But he no longer holds a call sheet, thinking it would make it too easy for him to chime in with ideas and take over. The results have been so-so. The Irish offense is averaging 334.0 yards per game, ranking 88th.

"I'll have one of my guys hold on to a call sheet offensively and defensively so that if there is a lull in the action and I want to look at it, I'll have something available to me," Weis said. "To be honest with you, it's been very comfortable for me."

Tedford was heavily involved in Cal's offense in his first four seasons in Berkeley before hiring Mike Dunbar to run the attack in 2006. Tedford's intent was good he wanted to become more of a "big picture" coach but he couldn't let go and Dunbar left after one season.

Last season, the offense bogged down as Cal lost six of its last seven regular-season games and finished 7-6. Tedford had had enough. He again hired an offensive coordinator, hiring Cignetti, who had been coaching quarterbacks for the San Francisco 49ers. Like Franklin, Cignetti wouldn't have taken the job had he been a coordinator in title only. Under him, Cal's offense has improved from 50th in the nation to 20th.

"I'm just going to keep my fingers on the pulse of the group better," Tedford said before the season. "When I'm not calling the plays, I'll be able to see a lot more of that, at least I think so. ... If you're willing to learn lessons from it, which I've tried to do, then I think we'll be better for it. You live and learn."

And hopefully win more games.

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com.

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