When Aubrayo Franklin, the 49ers’ incumbent nose tackle, finally signs his $7 million franchise tender and rolls into town, he’ll encounter happy teammates, relieved coaches – and one very long list, courtesy of Ricky Jean Francois.
“Oh yeah, I got a book for him,” Jean Francois told me with a laugh after practice today. “Like I’m already telling coach (D-line coach Jim Tomsula), just get all the OTA tape together so when it’s time for him to come back: ‘Tell me what I should’ve did on this, and tell me that one.’ “
Everyone knows Franklin is the starter on this team. But in his absence, it is Jean Francois, just a year removed from coming to the 49ers as a seventh-round draft pick, who is running with the first team. It’s a surprising development, not least because Jean Francois weighs less than 300 pounds, a puny threshold for NFL nose tackles. He didn’t even play the nose much at LSU, instead lining up as a defensive end or 3-technique DT.
“It gives him opportunities and ability to play in the National Football League and see the reps and see what he needs to work on, which is great for Ricky Jean,” defensive coordinator Greg Manusky said. “And he’s doing a pretty good job.”
Jean Francois played only in the final three games last season, and didn’t record a tackle. There’s no guarantee he’ll see much action in 2010, either. Isaac Sopoaga is flopping back and forth between first-team end and second-team nose, and could wind up being Franklin’s primary backup in the middle.
In any case, it’s imperative the 49ers find some relief for Franklin, who played the vast majority of snaps a year ago when the defense was in 3-4 alignment.
“There’s a lot of times he’d laugh. And he said a lot of guys from different teams asked him, ‘Who is your backup?’ ” Jean Francois noted. “And I’d be on the sideline right next to him. He’d say, ‘Him right here.’ But one thing I like about him, Aubrayo, he has the best conditioning.”
Jean Francois’ goal is to be in that sort of shape, in case he is called up for heavy action this fall. He also knows there are other aspects of the Franklin’s game he cannot copy. The veteran is big enough to tie up a double-team block and hold his ground. Even at the nose, Jean Francois will rely largely on his speed. But he said the 49ers are fine with his current weight.
“One thing I hear around the league, they want a lot of noses big, just big,” he said, motioning around his torso. “But you don’t have to be, as long as you have the strength. One thing I tell my coaches, that you don’t have to worry about my weight. Just worry about my strength. And that, you don’t even have to worry, because I have the strength.”
What Jean Francois doesn’t have at the moment is Franklin. The three-year starter, apparently not thrilled with his one-year tender, has skipped all of the 49ers’ voluntary practices so far. The understudy definitely misses his guidance.
“I look at him as a Peyton Manning of a nose tackle,” Jean Francois said. “He knows everything that’s going on around him. … He can tell what blocking scheme they have, he can tell you about the quarterback. He can tell when they line up what play they’re gonna run here. And that’s one thing I respect about him. I see what many years in the NFL do, if you’re dedicated to it.”
At the same time, Jean Francois realizes this is a great opportunity to get reps with the starters on defense. The hand technique and leverage are different at the nose than they are outside, and he’ll take every snap the 49ers give him.
“I can get every rep,” Jean Francois said. “It don’t matter if I get tired. I can’t get tired. This is my opportunity right here, to get comfortable in that position.”
A final word on Jean Francois. He was seen as a possible character problem coming out of college. He had academic problems at LSU and got in trouble for suggesting the Tigers would try to hurt Florida QB Tim Tebow. Talking to him today, it was hard to believe this was the same guy. He was cordial, patient and forthcoming. I think the 49ers might have gotten a great pick in the seventh round last year.