When James Franklin arrived at Penn State in January 2014, one of his priorities was to replenish some of the optimism that had dwindled amid the many doomsday predications that followed the NCAA’s imposition of severe sanctions in 2012 and the abrupt departure of his predecessor, Bill O’Brien.
Franklin pledged to do whatever it took to get the entire commonwealth excited about Penn State football again. He would recruit the state’s best players. He would field a dynamic, entertaining team. He would embrace social media to promote the program, using tools that Joe Paterno shunned and that even O’Brien seemed to regard with contempt, once referring to them as “Spacebook and Tweeter.” And that was just the beginning. “If people ask us to blow up balloons at their kid’s birthday party in the backyard, we’ll do that,” he said at his introductory news conference.
It’s now been two-and-a-half years since he made those pledges, and during that time it has become clear that the challenge was more complicated than it seemed in his first giddy days on the job. Yes, Franklin and his staff needed to build some enthusiasm for a program that had fallen from the ranks of the nation’s elite during the last decade of Paterno’s reign. But they also needed to temper expectations in a way that acknowledged the personnel shortcomings they had inherited when they took over. As Franklin discovered, the expectations never really crater at a school that ranks eighth all-time in major-college victories. And when they go unrealized, a panicky feeling sets in.
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“It’s been our biggest challenge,” Franklin says. “I think it’s still our challenge moving forward, because there’s still work to be done. It’s something that, when you’re at a place like Penn State, you have to embrace. I love the fact that we have such high expectations, I do. I love that.
“I’ve heard from a number of people that I’ve been too positive,” he adds. “But I think there’s a fine line. We have to build excitement for the direction of the program and we have to build excitement for where we’re going, because we’re going there. There are signs of it all over the place. But as fans and as coaches and as players, it doesn’t always happen at the rate we want it to happen.”
It has perhaps been Franklin’s misfortune to coach in a conference where the sort of rapid transformation Nittany Lion fans desperately want has happened twice in the past four seasons — just not at Penn State. Ohio State went 12–0 in Urban Meyer’s first year on the job, while Michigan went 10–3 last fall in its first season under Jim Harbaugh. Those are the programs that serve as Penn State’s benchmarks, and when fans see them excel, they tend to ask: Why not us?
Here’s why not: Due to the NCAA penalties and the scandal that precipitated them, the Nittany Lions recruited only 19 players in 2012 and 17 in 2013, and not all of those prospects were Big Ten-caliber players. The team also lost nine players when the NCAA waived its requirement that transfers from Penn State sit out a year at their new schools.
Those shortfalls created holes all over the depth chart, but especially on the offensive front. When Franklin and his staff began examining the roster they had inherited, they found they had only nine scholarship linemen. One of those nine blew out his knee in spring practice, and the Lions went on to surrender 44 sacks while finishing last in the Big Ten in rushing yardage in 2014. Offensive line coach Matt Limegrover wasn’t at Penn State at the time — he was hired this past January to succeed Auburn-bound assistant Herb Hand — but he heard stories. “To try to run a program at the highest level with only nine scholarship linemen is almost downright scary,” he says.
The Lions were only marginally better last season, giving up 39 sacks and finishing 12th in the conference in rushing. So when the subject of Franklin’s 14–12 record comes up among Penn State followers, the conversation inevitably circles around to the offensive line.
Will Year 3 produce the turnaround for which those fans have been clamoring? Franklin is optimistic. “There’s reason for hope,” he says, and to bolster his case, he notes that Penn State now has six linemen with ample starting experience and a handful of three- and four-star prospects from the past two recruiting classes with the potential to push the upperclassmen. The Lions also have Limegrover, who previously served as offensive coordinator at Minnesota. And they have a fast-paced new scheme, masterminded by first-year offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead, that Limegrover has described as “very offensive line-friendly.”
But there’s also reason to be wary. The Lions will be inexperienced at quarterback for the first time since Franklin took over. They need to rebuild their defensive front after losing three starters. They didn’t get quite as much help from their most recent recruiting class as they had hoped, with six players decommitting in the months leading up to National Signing Day. And they lost a key player — linebacker Troy Reeder — in a wave of transfers that struck the team in January.
Even before all of those developments, Franklin found himself walking back one of the pledges he made during his introductory presser: He will not be attending your special event, so don’t ask him to save the date. “I think people understood what I was saying. But 10 percent of the people thought I was being literal,” he said prior to the 2015 season. Those people were “inviting me to birthday parties, weddings, things like that.”
As for the other pledges — to dominate the state in recruiting, to fill Beaver Stadium’s 107,282 seats on a regular basis, to do everything in his power to turn Penn State back into an elite program — those are still operative.
For all the talk of tempering expectations, Franklin remains an optimist at heart. “What we’re trying to do is to make very thoughtful decisions about Penn State, about the direction we’re going and how we want to build it,” he says, “and I feel really good about that.”
— By Matt Herb