It's not exactly news, to anyone who's been following this program for the last couple weeks--or who's been checking into Twitter lately--but at least it's now official: When it comes to the coaching staff, State College might as well be Nashville North. And if James Franklin and his chief lieutenants are to be believed, that's a damn good thing.
At Beaver stadium this morning, Franklin swung for the fences: "I think that we will have the most aggressive recruiting staff in America." Bob Shoop swung for the fences: "We came here to build Big Ten and national championship-caliber defenses." John Donovan swung for the fences: "We're going to be as prepared as anybody in the country as far as what we're getting into each and every week." Charles Huff swung for the fences: "We'll be the first fast-paced no-huddle special teams you'll see." If even a couple connect, we could be in for a treat.
Yes, today Franklin introduced his coaching staff to the State College media, and as expected and known, the vast majority are coming with him from Vanderbilt. It's been hard to miss the signals, even if you haven't read the daily newspaper reports confirming the additions to Franklin's staff, or if you're not making a habit of checking the PSU directory for new athletic department employees. Lately, they've been tweeting out messages of Penn State pride, and going on recruiting trips, and getting tours of Beaver Stadium. Today's presser was more a formality than a matter of suspense, but it was still plenty of fun.
Franklin tipped his hand to this inevitability two weeks ago, when he was introduced as Penn State's 16th Head Coach, and his words echo true today:
I'm a guy that for the last 12 years has been creating a staff. I have a list of receiver coaches and tight end coaches and offensive coordinators and defensive coordinators for the right job and the right fit and the right setting making sure that we're always prepared... I am fiercely loyal as a person in general, and I'm going to be fiercely loyal to the guys that I've worked with in the past.
Indeed, of the nine assistant coaches, all but two worked with Franklin at Vanderbilt. Franklin had also expressed a hope to keep certain individuals on staff--notably, Larry Johnson--but there are no holdovers from Bill O'Brien's coaching staff left. O'Brien, of course, had retained Larry Johnson and Ron Vanderlinden, and so now, for the first time since at least when Rip Engle came to Penn State in 1950 and probably before even that, there's no link to the past, no looking back. James Franklin comes to this university with a clean slate, with his guys, and if that's occasionally disappointing (WHY, LARRY JOHNSON?) it's no less exciting*. Of course, it's not a list entirely devoid of Penn Staters, but we'll get to that later. The point is that this is a group with which Franklin feels comfortable, with which he has a built in rapport, with which he will seek to diminish the learning curve that always accompanies a coaching taking on a new job.
But both of his coordinators, Bob Shoop and John Donovan, are joining him in State College. So is offensive line coach Herb Hand, who was as important--and perhaps as difficult--a hire as anyone else, after Franklin. And Sean Spencer--Coach Chaos--who on his off days from being a psychic detective, is an up-and-coming defensive line coach. There's Brent Pry, who turned down an opportunity to be a head coach to stick around as Franklin's LB guru. To help Christian Hackenberg take the next step to his inevitable greatness, it'll be Ricky Rahne, who helped groom Josh Freeman at Kansas State. Oh, and let's not forget ex-NFLer Josh Gattis, working with the wideouts. And to round it out, the two newbies: CB coach Terry Smith, a Penn Stater coming back home; RB/ST coach Charles Huff, the MAC's best recruiter. This might not be the splashiest of assistant coaching groups, but after landing the biggest fish of them all in Franklin, does it really matter?
But just who are these guys, really? Well, Cari clued you into their bios (and their Twitter accounts) just a few days ago, and there are no major surprises beyond that core group for me to introduce. They've been doing a yeoman's work already, hitting the recruiting trail hard and not only pulling in some ex-Vandy commits but setting up officials and visits from new recruits, and highly ranked ones too, and I'm sure Nick will tell you all about that in the next few days. But Franklin detailed his recruiting strategy--besides just gushing about his coaches--saying that his guys recruit as a staff, such that a high schooler won't even know who his primary recruiter is. He's assigning each coach a different part of the state, region, and country--and all of them have ties to the northeast and midwest. And maybe his assistants will be able to get a little bit of sleep in a few weeks, after signing day, because until then, "we've been ripping and running all over the country...to close out this class the right way."
Speaking of those deputies, we got to meet three of them today, and like Franklin, they're exciting, charismatic, charming, and dedicated football coaches. Bob Shoop speaks with the speed of an auctioneer and the intensity of, well, a really good defensive coordinator. He pledged that his defenses will be tailored to best fit the personnel he has, and based on the three tenets of "passion, toughness and team." He calls his third down blitzes "the magic show," and bases his schemes on "relentless pursuit and neverending pressure." He couldn't speak more highly of his assistants, opining that he "truly believe[s] we have the best defensive staff in America," and given the results he put up at Vanderbilt, it's not all that far-fetched to believe. And like his head coach, Shoop promised that as far as he was concerned, last year didn't matter. "There's no perceived starters...it's a clean slate right now. I have no hidden agendas: the best players play, regardless of class."
John Donovan promised his head coach that his offense would score "as many points as it takes to win," but in a calmer, more sober introduction, he professed his offensive philosophy: It'll be pro-style, like his Vanderbilt units that produced the best runner--Zac Stacy--and receiver--Jordan Matthews--in program history, en route to a couple 30-point-per-game seasons. But like Shoop, he will mold his offense around his personnel, and with Christian Hackenberg under center, you can be sure to see some different looks than the spread-option plays that Vanderbilt ran with its dual-threat quarterbacks. And Donovan sees the value of the tight-end position, and knows how deep and talented Penn State's crop is. "We like to get creative on our side of the ball," he said, "and that's our advantage."
Charles Huff was the last to speak, as the first special teams coach at Penn State in recent memory, and in between dropping marine biology lessons and track analogies, he managed to get fans excited for a unit they rarely want to see. After passing along the promise he received from Shoop and Donovan--that he won't need to worry about the punt unit, since the offense will just convert every third down--and that he shouldn't bother preparing a punt return team--since the defense will just force turnovers on every drive--Huff explained that his philosophy is to be like a great white shark and "attack, attack attack," that "we'll attack, and attack, and attack. Just because we block the punt first time out doesn't mean we're not coming after it again." He promised speed, too--a "Prefontaine pace," a suicide pace, and I don't even know how that's possible, but coming from a guy who called James Franklin his "professional dad," and said he almost dropped the phone at getting the job offer to come here, I imagine if anyone can find a way, it'll be Huff.
Look, by September, we'll probably be calling for at least one them to be fired. But for now, we're all here, welcoming a new coaching staff to Penn State, and hoping that each of them, like James Franklin, will be able stay for as long as we'll have 'em.
*Okay, assistant strength coach Dwight Galt IV coached under Craig Fitzgerald the last couple years and returns to work with his dad. But that doesn't really count, does it?