SLIPPERY ROCK - Johnny Franco is back in business.
And, business has been good for the IUP standout free safety.
The Tyrone product and all-PSAC West performer returns to anchor the Crimson Hawks' defense this fall. With 15 starters back from last year, hopes are high for Franco and IUP.
However, the redshirt senior is just happy to be back with his teammates.
The NCAA ruled Franco, who initially attended the United States Military Academy upon graduation in 2008, was out of athletic eligibility this year because of his football participation his first two years at Army before transferring to IUP for the 2010 season.
The Crimson Hawks appealed the NCAA's ruling, and it was overturned because Franco did not appear in any varsity action for Army during his freshman campaign.
"I played in two junior varsity games against prep schools and that's what I was appealing. Once we went through the whole process, the NCAA granted me the eligibility and said those two games shouldn't have counted, so I got the extra year," he said. "I just had to go into the offseason with faith thinking I was going to get it. I worked all offseason acting like I had the year, so being granted that year is a huge weight off my back. Now, I can just go out and worry about the season and worry about football and not have to worry about being able to play."
Franco's return put a smile on head coach Curt Cignetti's face.
"I was really excited. It was really great news - a big win to start the season. We lost the initial waiver and appealed the decision and got the extra year," he said. "John is the quarterback of the defense, the heart and soul. He makes a lot of plays back there and helps a lot of other guys do their job. I couldn't be more pleased, but I think it was the right thing, too, from a student-athlete welfare standpoint. I think the right decision was made and we're extremely happy with it."
The Crimson Hawks got more good news Monday at PSAC West media day at Slippery Rock University. They were picked tied for first with California in the Western Division preseason poll. Slippery Rock was third, while Edinboro, Mercyhurst, Gannon, Clarion and Lock Haven followed.
"I think that's just a testament to how much work we've put in, our recruiting and how much work Coach Cignetti has done," Franco said. "But, that [ranking is] just on paper. That means nothing when it comes to the actual games being played. So, it's great to be No. 1, but I'd rather be No. 1 when the season ended rather than the beginning of the season."
A veteran roster and the PSAC's stingiest defense last year give IUP hope it can contend for the championship.
"We pride ourselves on playing good defense, especially in the red zone. That's where we work on it the most," Franco said. "Coach Tort [Paul Tortorella] puts us in the places we have to be and he relies on us to make plays. We've done that the last couple years and, hopefully, we can continue to do that."
Franco enjoyed a solid junior campaign. He started all 10 games and finished third in the PSAC with five interceptions. He was fourth on the team in tackles (62) and led the squad with 10 pass breakups.
"I think my intelligence level of the game is a strength. I study a lot of film," he said. "My dad being a high school coach, I have been around football my whole life, so I feel like I have a knack for the game. I might not be the most athletic person on the field, but I can make up for it with what I know about football."
He wants to take on more of a leadership role with the Crimson Hawks, too.
"We're all excited for the season. Hopefully, we can get some leadership to step up. I am going to have to play a bigger role in the leadership position," Franco said. "In the spring and offseason, a couple people have stepped up and taken control of the team. I think the senior leadership on the team is going to be a big part in how we turn out."
Franco, who hopes to attend medical school next year, wants to end his collegiate football career on a positive note.
"We'd like to win the PSAC championship, but we just have to take it one game at a time. Anything can happen in college football. As far as our team can get, that's what our goal is," he said. "This will be my last year. You have to savor every game and approach each game like it's going to be your last. My senior year of high school, I got injured and missed the whole season. I know any game could be my last game, so I have to go out there and play as hard as I can. Hopefully, the result will be a good one."