Franklin, the anchor of San Francisco's 3-4 defensive scheme, is seeking a new contract and did not participate in any of the team's offseason workouts. The 49ers designated Franklin their franchise player earlier this year, but he's yet to sign a one-year tender of $7.003 million and may opt to miss the camp grind well into August.
His absence didn't damper the optimism surrounding camp, though.
"Aubrayo is one of a kind," Willis said. "If I could snap my fingers and make Aubrayo be here, I would. But at the end of the day, we have to work with who we have here. I know everything is going to work itself out, but right now we have to keep going forward."
In fact, Willis is so ready for a fresh start in the 49ers second training camp under coach Mike Singletary that he shaved his head.
"I just wanted to come into camp with a different look," the All-Pro linebacker said. "So I shaved it all off."
The 49ers have gone a franchise-worst seven consecutive seasons without a winning record or playoff berth, but the outlook is different this year, with many forecasting San Francisco to win its first NFC West title since 2002.
"It all looks good right now on paper," cornerback Nate Clements said. "Across the board, we've definitely got the talent. The key is applying that to the real deal. We just have to make it happen now. That's what we're here for in training camp, to jell and mesh and to improve and compete together as a team."
Willis and Clements are key starters on a rising defense that led the way to San Francisco's 8-8 finish last season. That defense is set with seasoned starters at most positions.
The 49ers are eager to build on their 4-2 finish of last season, a stretch during which their defense limited opponents to nine points or fewer four times.
That defense figures to be improved this year with the return of Clements, a former Pro Bowl selection who missed the final nine games last year with a fractured scapula, and the continued emergence of youngsters like free safety Dashon Goldson.
After an inconsistent first half last season, Goldson came on as a playmaker over the final two months. He finished the season with four interceptions and three forced fumbles, and is one of several rising talents that has people talking about the 49ers as a team to beat.
"I'm real anxious to get started," Goldson said. "Everybody's excited. We have a lot of guys back together in the same system, and everybody was on the same page in the offseason. That's why everybody's excited about us. They know what we have."
Willis knows perhaps better than anybody.
"Opportunity is always around, but great opportunities only come every so often," he said. "This year is a great opportunity for us. We're mature now as a team, and we can get it done. We just have to go out and get it now."