Players of the Pine Belt: Hattiesburg's Fabian Franklin

Players of the Pine Belt: Hattiesburg's Fabian Franklin

HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - For the past two seasons, Fabian Franklin has been pretty much a marked man in the Hattiesburg High School backfield.

And there's a good chance Franklin may be even more so this fall.

But knowing that Franklin is getting the football and being able to stop him after he does always has been two different things.

Over the past two seasons, the 6-foot, 200-pound Franklin has rushed for 1,990 yards and 27 touchdowns, averaging 6.2 yards per carry.

His size and skills made him one of the more highly-recruited players in the state, and two weeks ago, Franklin verbally committed to Mississippi State University.

"I just thought I could be kind of away from home, but still close," Franklin said of his choice. "Another reason is that I think I can go there, work my butt off and be able to play (early)."

Franklin acknowledged dealing with a certain amount of stress coming into his final season as a Tiger, but after taking a deep, mental breath, he decided to just focus on what he has done best: take care of business.

"At first I kind of did, but then I thought, 'You need to let all that pressure go and just play your game'" Franklin said. "I can't get caught up in all the hype and forget about my game. I don't what to get out there Friday nights and it not show and have people wonder about this, wonder about that.

"So, I kind of have put all this to the side and keep myself stress free, so when I get out on the field, I can be focused on whatever job I need to do when coach calls a play."

Franklin and his fellow running backs, especially junior Drexlan Allen, may hear their number called more often in 2017 after seeing Julian Conner, a three-year starter at quarterback, and receiver Jordan Murphy, a University of Tennessee signee, graduate from a team that won 10 games and reached the second round of the Class 5A playoffs.

But then again, they may not.

Tony Vance, who enters his fifth season in Hattiesburg, said the Tigers will continue to run an offense that has had the capability to strike quickly while also being able to grind time off the clock and keep the ball away from the opposition when needed.

"We're going to do what we do," Vance said. "We lost some good players, but we have a lot of good players coming back and we're going to fit our system to their strengths. You might think we're going to change up, but we're not. We've been too successful."

Vance built a juggernaut of a program at Charleston High School, losing only 10 games in five years, and winning a Class 3A state crown in 2011 and coming up a point shy in the title game the following season.

In his first season at Hattiesburg, the Tigers won just four games, followed by a five-win season in 2014.

But Hattiesburg won eight games in 2015, then improved to 10 wins last season, falling to Laurel High School 45-42 in the semifinals of the South State playoffs. The Tigers scored at least 40 points in 13 of their 14 games.

The quarterback baton will be passed from one Conner to another, with junior Jarod Conner moving from running back to quarterback.

"He's too good a player to be the third running back, so we moved him," Conner said. "He's a tireless worker and he takes ownership. If he messes up, it's, 'Hey, it's me, Coach …' You can work with a guy like that. You can win some games with a guy like that."

The Tigers return three veterans at receiver, including seniors D'Andre Humbles and Raheem Willis and junior Darius Ruffin, while all five starters return on the offensive line. Senior Quincy McGee returns at left tackle, with junior Demetris Allen at right tackle and senior Josh Dean at right guard. Three players are competing at center, including senior Jalen Fairley, junior John Minor and sophomore Reggie Wilson, while Minor or Fairley will handle left guard.

Vance said he expects the Tigers' defense to be much improved, especially a defensive line packed with juniors who had rarely played.

"We should be able to stop some folks this year," Vance said.

Senior William Robinson will play hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker at times, while seniors Myles Johnson and Letrell Johnson return at defensive end, as does senior noseguard Nigil Willis,senior defensive tackle Tony Smith and junior defensive lineman DL Chris Turner.

Robinson, University of Southern Mississippi commitment, heads a veteran linebacking corps that includes seniors Braxton Thomas, Dshun Mitchell and Josh Sims, with sophomore Jaylan Easley also expected in the mix.

The secondary returns senior cornerbacks Raykill Ducksworth and Dennis Payton, with junior George Murry moving to safety from outside linebacker.

Franklin said he and his fellow Tigers will be ready to roll come Aug. 19, when they travel to Petal High School to open the season.

"Even though we lost Julian and Jordan, I think we're still going to be good seeing as how we got everybody back on defense and we're still going to be good on offense," Franklin said.

"I think we're going to do more running because of what we have (in the backfield), but we're going to do a lot of throwing, too. We've still got good receivers. Even if we throw it or run, depending on the situation on the field, we're still going to be the same team. We still can catch the ball, still can run the ball, still can do whatever Coach Vance has planned for the day of that game."