Column: The key to James Franklin’s success at Penn State lies in the Christian Hackenberg dilemma
CHICAGO — James Franklin stood in front of his league last week and vowed that this year would be the start of something different at Penn State. Think of it as Year One, he said. The Nittany Lions have 85 scholarship players for the first time in his three seasons and an elevation from two 7-6 campaigns should only be natural, after all.
It’s what you expect to hear at media days from coaches feeling a tinge of pressure. The thing is, Franklin doesn’t speak to social norms but to his own sort of brash code, whether that’s a nickname like “Nicky Satan” or the inference he leveled last week that other Big Ten East coaches could be using Penn State’s recent scandal against it on the recruiting trail.
But this time, on that stage, even Franklin was holding back. What he was really getting at – what this all will eventually get at – is that Penn State has to show that Christian Hackenberg was holding its offense back and not the other way around.
That’s because even at 75 and 80 scholarships, the math has never added up for the Penn State offense under Franklin. In two seasons following Bill O’Brien’s commendable patchwork job, the Nittany Lions dropped from 43rd in offense to out of the top 100 both years.
The Big Ten Freshman of the Year in O’Brien’s last season returned for two more cracks at the quarterback position, where experience should result in gained steam more than any other. If anything, Hackenberg only got worse.
The dropoff to his sophomore year was stunning, as he went from a 20-10 touchdown-interception rate to 12-15, just as his yards per attempt dipped from 7.5 to 6.2. The radioactive jolt of that kind of bottoming out resulted in fewer mistakes last season — only six interceptions to 16 touchdowns — but the increased efficiency didn’t elevate an offense led by a kid who thrives on taking chances.
There’s no doubting Hackenberg had the talent, as his size (6-foot-4, 223 pounds), arm strength and freshman debut helped make him the second-round NFL Draft selection of the New York Jets. He just clearly had his flaws, too. His decision-making and the way he laid receivers out to dry made some scouts cringe as others fell in love with the physical tools.
He was by every means a divisive pick. Why those physical tools didn’t lead to an overall progression in his game is the mystery, and it’s going to define plenty for Penn State moving forward.
For starters, it will determine just how good this year’s crop of returning talent can be, which includes a 1,000-yard running back (Saquon Barkley), an 1,100-yard receiver (Chris Godwin) and four returning starters on the offensive line. It will also come after the departure of two-year offensive coordinator John Donovan, who has become an easy target for Hackenberg questions.
How the transition to either sophomore Trace McSorley or freshman Tommy Stevens turns out will also say plenty about Franklin and his ability to win at a big-time program, something he has yet to do in his climb-the-ladder coaching career. It will also speak to his acumen in a division that features heavyweight coaches in Urban Meyer, Mark Dantonio and Jim Harbaugh. Franklin is a passing specialist at heart, and he has to dispel the stigma left behind in Hackenberg’s goodbye letter, which thanked almost every Penn State influence except for his latest head coach.
The NCAA and the NFL are different games, and Hackenberg’s success at the next level might never fully answer why it didn’t work at Penn State. But Franklin can. It’s a challenge he’s taking on after two average years under difficult circumstances and the one he stared dead in the eye last week.
He might not have said it word for word, but it’s there. And what he did state in his opening address — “This is an exciting and pivotal time for Penn State football” — couldn’t possibly be more true.