While coaching back at Marlboro County High School in Bennettsville, SC, in the early 2000s, Ronnie Baker helped tutor a defensive end named Robert Ayers.
Ayers went on to earn all-state honors at Marlboro County, All-American status at the University of Tennessee and enjoyed a 10-year career in the National Football League.
Baker compares the potential of his current defensive end at Lake City High, Ja’Maurion Franklin, to Ayers. Franklin, a 6-foot-5, 230-pounder, became one of the first additions to East Carolina’s recruiting Class of 2022 on June 23 when he made a verbal commitment over other scholarship offers from Benedict, Charlotte, Howard and North Greenville.
“When I got to Marlboro County, they had Robert Ayers, who was kind of like Ja’Maurion, a taller linebacker,” Baker said. “He played 10-plus years in the NFL, and Ja’Maurion reminds me of Robert Ayers.”
That’s high praise for a player whose football career began without much fanfare in Lake City, a town of about 7,000 located just South of Florence. Franklin was still a freshman when Baker was named Lake City’s head coach in February 2019. According to Baker, Franklin was only about 6-2, weighed 190 pounds and was working as a quarterback and defensive back for the Panthers’ varsity squad.
Franklin became a starter for Baker at free safety and served as the backup quarterback as a sophomore. Then, the COVID-19 outbreak in March 2020 brought to a halt the offseason training program for Lake City and just about every other high school team in the country.
When players were finally allowed to return to campus to start preparing for the 2020 season, Franklin had experienced some significant growth.
“When he came back he had gone from 6-2, 190 to 6-5, 230 pounds,” Baker said. “He went from a free safety to a defensive lineman.
“When we moved him from free safety to defensive line we were hoping that the physicality part would be there. Then, in our first scrimmage, I watched Ja’Maurion line up at a five technique (directly across from offensive tackle) and he had to attack the B gap (space between offensive tackle and guard). He had to attack a double team. I watched him split it, make the tackle for a loss and from there I knew there was no doubt he’d be a high recruit with a possible NFL future.”
Franklin earned All-Region AAA 6 honors in an abbreviated 2020 football season, then went on to play a major role as a rebounder for Lake City’s basketball squad.
College football recruiters didn’t seem to notice Franklin, however, until early this year June when he attended Mike Norvell’s Sunshine Showcase camp in Tallahassee, at Florida State. Franklin’s performance there impressed enough to draw scholarship offers from Howard and Charlotte, and an invite from East Carolina to visit campus.
Following a private workout in Greenville on June 14, Franklin received a scholarship offer from the Pirates. Eleven days later Franklin announced via a Twitter post his decision to accept ECU’s offer.
“The coaching staff, they did just a wonderful job of selling the program and selling their vision for the program,” Baker said. “They also showed him where he could fit into the program. The proximity to Lake City, Greenville not being too far from home, was a big deal as well.”
ECU has recruited Franklin to play a hybrid outside linebacker-defensive end position, according to Baker.
“He is so athletic,” Baker said. “He’s also a highly touted basketball player who used to be a free safety. So to be able to use that athleticism that he developed playing a skill position and basketball, then also be a physical presence makes him the total package. His body can potentially hold 25 or 30 more pounds. His projection is to be a 6-6, 260-pound guy with NFL possibilities.”
Franklin is one of five verbal commitments from rising high school seniors the Pirates landed between June 18th and 24th. The others include 5-11, 180-pound receiver Brock Spalding from Lorton, VA, 6-2, 175-pounder junior college cornerback Shavon Revel Jr. from Winston-Salem, NC, 6-4, 270-pound offensive lineman Elijah Samples from Cumming, GA, and 6-5, 315-pound offensive lineman Omari Allen from Hendersonville, NC.