CHICAGO – Let’s get the obvious out in the open, shall we?
It was not an easy offseason for James Franklin and the Penn State Nittany Lions.
After an up-and-down 2015 season that saw an embarrassing season-opening loss to Temple, Penn State, behind a very talented but very inconsistent Christian Hackenberg – who was behind a woeful offensive line – managed a 7-6 record. After giving up 10 sacks to the Owls in that game, Penn State, outside of a lopsided loss in Columbus to Ohio State and a regular-season finale depantsing by Big Ten champion Michigan State, was competitive through the rough-and-tumble Big Ten and finished 4-4 in the conference. They made their second consecutive bowl game, though they lost a hard-fought 24-17 battle to the Georgia Bulldogs in the TaxSlayer Bowl.
Of course, mediocre isn’t really the goal in Happy Valley. Changes needed to happen, and they did, for a variety of reasons.
Penn State fired offensive coordinator John Donovan in November, a day after the 55-16 drubbing they received at the hands of the Spartans. It was a tough call for head coach James Franklin because Donovan had been his offensive coordinator for five seasons, three at Vanderbilt and Franklin’s first two at Penn State.
In January, defensive coordinator Bob Shoop bolted for the same position at Tennessee. A week later, another longtime Franklin assistant, offensive line coach Herb Hand, accepted a job coaching the offensive line at Auburn.
When Franklin began to look for new coaches to fill the roles of the dearly departed, he knew he’d have a talented – but young – roster to sell. That was the pitch he made to Joe Moorhead, who was then the head coach at Fordham.
“That was a lot of the thing that me and Joe Moorhead talked about when I hired him,” Franklin told the media on Monday at the Big Ten Media Days in Chicago. “The timing is really good. The timing is good for Penn State. The timing is good for Joe Moorhead. We’re back to 85 scholarships, Joe is coming in at the right time.”
That should be music to the ears of the Penn State faithful, because Franklin is right. The loss of Hackenberg might be addition by subtraction for the Nittany Lions, who can now focus on the real strength of their offense – the running game – rather than trying to fit their scheme around Hackenberg.
“The thing that’s exciting,” Franklin said, “is there’s a lot of pieces of the puzzle. It’s a great situation to break in a new quarterback. We’ve got a much more experienced offensive line, more depth than we’ve had at that position. We’ve got experience at wide receiver, which is going to help our running back. We’ve got more experience at wide receiver which is going to help our quarterback. Then, the depth and talent that we have at the running back position as well, so I think all those things are going to be good for everybody.”
Though mentioned last, it’s the running back position at Penn State that has generated the most palpable buzz in their football program. Sophomore Saquon Barkley burst on to the national scene as a freshman, running away from, over, and through Big Ten defenses on his way to 1,076 yards on just 182 carries. That production, combined with Barkley’s potential, has Franklin excited about his sophomore tailback.
“There’s a lot of players, at a lot of different positions, that may have one or two characteristics that you get excited about,” Franklin said. “It’s a running back who is real fast, or is short, but elusive. You find a guy who can run for power but can’t make you miss, but (Barkley) is a guy that – in my 22 years – has probably the most traits, desirable traits, that you’re looking for. Body type, athleticism, mentality, can run for power, can make you miss, can catch the ball. Sometimes you have an undersized back, but he better have great ball skills so you can take advantage of them in the passing game, well some guys don’t. He’s got a number of traits that you look for, you’re checking off your list of things you’re looking for, there’s not too many of those characteristics or traits that he doesn’t possess.”
If you’re talking about college football’s best running backs, Franklin believes that Barkley is ready to be in the conversation right now.
“I think he is,” he said when asked if Barkley was one of the country’s best. “I don’t think there’s any argument. He didn’t even play much the first couple games of the year because he was just like a typical freshman running back, there was still a lot he had to learn in terms of protections and other things like that.”
To be the best running back he can be, Barkley will need to be pushed by the guys behind him on the depth chart. As Franklin mentioned, getting back to the full allotment of 85 scholarship players is a major boost for entire Penn State program. The Nittany Lions need to have more bodies, and they’ve been undermanned since 2012. The potential for improvement is visible all over the roster but its impact is especially visible at running back.
“I think running back is a perfect example of the competition and depth that we are starting to build,” Franklin said. “Everybody talks about Saquon Barkley, and everybody should be talking about him, but I think Mark Allen is a guy we have a lot of confidence in. Andre Robinson is a guy we redshirted, a lot of confidence in. And then, obviously, Miles Sanders coming in.”
Much of life is about timing, and Franklin has to be aware that another subpar season in Happy Valley could seriously warm up the chair in his office. If he’s worried, you couldn’t tell on Monday in Chicago. There was nothing but positive thoughts about where things are going for his Nittany Lions.
“I think there’s very high expectations at Penn State, and there should be,” he said. “I also would say that there’s very few programs that would have been able to come through what we’ve come through with the type of success that we’ve had, two bowl games in a row. Never had a losing season through the challenges. So there’s positives there to build on. There’s no doubt about it. But I think progress is going to come in every area.”
After back-to-back 7-6 finishes, Franklin isn’t ignoring the fact that progress means more wins, especially at a place that has the history and tradition of Penn State.
“I think everybody, the administration, the former coaching staff, as well as our coaching staff, knew that our Year 1 and Year 2 were probably going to be the most challenging years,” Franklin said when asked about coming off the NCAA sanctions in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
“We kind of went into that understanding that. I think my contract represented that as well from the beginning. This is going to be a very important year for us, no doubt, to make progress, to show the direction that we’re going and our players understand that. Our coaches understand that. Our fans and administration, I think everybody is aligned and understands that. And excited. Excited about what this year is going to bring. And our guys have prepared as such.”