James Franklin bringing new energy to Penn State
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- An otherwise mundane Penn State spring practice neared its end last week when an air horn sounded and a wave of electricity rippled through Holuba Hall. It was time for "The Lion's Den," the program's version of the Oklahoma drill. As the entire team surrounded two boundary lines of cones at one end of the complex, head coach James Franklin morphed into part drill sergeant (calling out which three offensive and defensive linemen would square off) and part DJ (frantically motioning to a student across the building to alert him when to turn the music up or down). At one point, as the collective testosterone swelled, the wiry Franklin stood face-to-face with a running back about to enter the gauntlet. "You look scared to death!" Franklin screamed.
According to various Nittany Lions players, such manic energy is not uncommon at practices these days. Sometimes, when the kickers attempt field goals at the end of a workout (with the entire team at risk of running if they miss), Franklin ratchets up the pressure by dousing the ball -- or the specialists -- with water. Other times, the atmosphere is considerably lighter. For example, the staff turned receivers coach Josh Gattis' quest to run a sub-4.8 40 into a comical mini-documentary.
"That's pretty much what it is every day," said quarterback Christian Hackenberg. "They make it a lot more fun to be around the program. It's not a drag. Every day you really don't know what to expect."
Fun hasn't often been the operative word surrounding Penn State football since the Jerry Sandusky scandal first broke in November 2011. There was Joe Paterno's divisive ouster and his death from lung cancer complications a few months later. Then came Sandusky's trial and the Freeh Report. Then unprecedented NCAA sanctions, which included a four-year bowl ban.
Coach Bill O'Brien, now with the Houston Texans, spent two seasons admirably keeping the Nittany Lions afloat, going 8-4 in 2012 and 7-5 last fall. But 29 months after the Sandusky scandal first surfaced, it hasn't disappeared. Dottie Sandusky recently went on national television to assail her husband's victims. A never-ending series of related lawsuits are being filed. On the day Penn State's spring practice opened last month, the most commented-on story on PennLive.com was about the Paterno family's lawsuit against the school and the NCAA.
Inside the Lasch Building, however, it's clear the Nittany Lions have long since moved on. Coaches and players speak respectfully of the late Paterno, and the walls are still lined with the names of his All-America selections from the last 40-plus years. But Franklin has already put his own stamp on the program. The Langhorne, Pa., native returned to his home state in January after a historic three-year stint at Vanderbilt. In Nashville, he remade the SEC's longstanding cellar dweller into a nine-win team in both 2012 and '13. Now, he takes over a program with far more prestige, but with no less rebuilding work at hand.
"Obviously the thing you have here is, you've got the history, the tradition and the facility," said Franklin. "Those things are in place. It's the other things we've got to get going because although this place has got an unbelievable tradition and history, if you look at the last 10 years, that hasn't been the case."
The first step, according to Franklin, is "breaking down the walls" with his new players. That's a common challenge for any incoming coaching staff, but particularly at Penn State. "[The upperclassmen] have really been through the most out of any Penn State team ever -- probably any college football team, really," said fifth-year senior guard Miles Dieffenbach.
Chemistry played an undeniable role in Vanderbilt's resurgence. Franklin is attempting to recreate that environment in Happy Valley by essentially bringing Vandy with him. Eight of the Nittany Lions' nine assistant coaches worked under Franklin with the Commodores. So did three strength coaches and four administrators. The staff is unusually close. The families of offensive line coach Herb Hand and offensive coordinator John Donovan have vacationed together in Florida, and with many wives and children still back in Nashville, four staff members are currently staying at Hand's house. (Franklin, for his part, recently moved out of a nearby Residence Inn and has been lodging on an AeroBed in his office.)
"Right now my house is like the frat house in Old School," said Hand. Known for his levity, which he shares on Twitter and even Reddit, the 46-year-old recalled a recent staff meeting in which he bragged about his broad jump ability and promptly got called out.
"Next thing I know, I'm in my dress shoes and dress pants trying to do a standing broad jump without blowing the ass out of my pants," said Hand. "When you can do that, there's going to be a tremendous amount of loyalty to a head coach who allows that to happen."
The hope is that the staff's upbeat demeanor trickles down to the players. They may need a positive attitude to navigate a potentially rough few seasons ahead.
Penn State's bowl ban has another two years remaining, but the program's NCAA-mandated scholarship reductions (a maximum of 75 this year) and smaller recent signing classes (19 in 2012 and 17 in '13) will more directly impact the Nittany Lions' '14 campaign. The coaches don't sugarcoat the depleted depth and talent level they inherited in State College. They arguably left a more desirable roster behind at Vanderbilt.
"We've got a lot of work to do," said Franklin. "We've got good kids, and we've got good players here. We just don't have enough of them."
The Nittany Lions boast a marquee player at the most important position on the field, though. Hackenberg, the former five-star prospect from Palmyra, Va., threw for 2,955 yards with 20 touchdowns and 10 interceptions as a true freshman. Less than a year after arriving on campus, he already carries the poise of a veteran leader. He gives Franklin a franchise player to build around over the next two to three years.
Still, the coach already seems tired of hearing about his acclaimed quarterback. "All anyone wants to talk about is Christian Hackenberg, but this is the ultimate team game," said Franklin. "You better have a line to protect him, you better have receivers to throw to."
And that's where Penn State might struggle. Hackenberg's go-to target last year, first-team All-America wideout Allen Robinson, is gone, leaving behind a largely unproven receiving corps. Talented tight ends Jesse James, Adam Breneman and Kyle Carter will likely take on increased roles this fall. And depth is a particular problem on the offensive line, which suffered a crushing blow last week when Dieffenbach, one of two returning starters on the unit, reportedly went down with a torn ACL. The Nittany Lions are carrying just three scholarship tackles this spring, and one of them is early enrollee freshman Chasz Wright. The two No. 1 guards at a recent practice, sophomores Derek Dowrey and Brian Gaia, played on the defensive side of the ball in 2013.
On defense, "Linebacker U" is a shell of its former self. Senior Mike Hull is the team's top returning tackler and one of its leaders, and sophomores Brandon Bell and Gary Wooten showed promise late last season. But again, there's little depth. Coordinator Bob Shoop will rely heavily on a strong defensive line and a secondary that features Adrian Amos and Jordan Lucas. Penn State's defenders will also look to adopt a new mindset. Franklin told his players at the end of a recent practice, "Fast and violent -- that's who we're going to be as a football team."
"They're taking that SEC mentality and bringing it up to Penn State and the Big Ten," said Hull. "In-your-face, hard-nosed football. I think you'll see a big change in the physicality in our team over the next couple of years."
An influx of talent is on the way, too. Franklin, who secured Vanderbilt's first top-25 signing class two years ago, is thus far fulfilling his pledge to "dominate the region" in recruiting. He has already snagged 11 verbal commitments in the class of 2015 to give the Nittany Lions a very early No. 2 national ranking, according to Rivals.com.
"We're offering the same thing but for a different reason," Franklin said of his sales pitch. "At Vanderbilt there hadn't been a history of strong recruiting ... so we were offering early playing time because of that. Whereas here, we're selling early playing time because we're only at 75 scholarship players."
Until new help arrives, the current Nittany Lions will keep on plugging. They'll do so with an enthusiasm that belies the cloud purportedly hovering over their program.
"Right now we are having a lot of fun because the coaches make it that way," said Lucas. "Football was never hard. We still got to play 12 Saturdays, it was always fun, but now it feels like some of that weight is getting lifted off our shoulders. The energy around here is much different."