The Nittany Lions are undefeated heading into week four, following a comeback win at Rutgers that was every bit as satisfying as anyone who watched the Big Ten Network pregame show hoped it would be (did anyone research recruiting in New Jersey before talking about recruiting in New Jersey on television?).
Coach Franklin is pleased with the resolve and determination of his players to come through and make big plays when they’re needed most despite the obvious areas that still need improvement (talking about the poor offensive line is getting a bit repetitive).
The Nittany Lions have a pretty good set up this next month, with UMass coming to Happy Valley for the first time and two bye weeks giving plenty of time to prepare for Michigan and Ohio State. Fight on, State!
Q. Why do you think the offense has had success late in the fourth quarter?
COACH FRANKLIN: I don't know. I can't really describe that. I think, number one, I think we've been able to kind of wear some people down.
I think our guys have done a great job of having a sense of urgency when we've needed it most. I think our defense has really given our offense some momentum and some juice, the way they have been able to hang in there and keep us in games.
So, I think there's a lot of things that factor into it, but it’s not like we are just waiting until the fourth quarter to call those plays. I think there's a lot of factors that go into it.
Q. I wanted to ask you about Anthony Zettel. He's been such a disruptive player for you in three games, and I know he's playing a new position. What is it about his physical skills and even his mental makeup that you think makes him able to kind of thrive inside like he has?
COACH FRANKLIN: ...He was an athletic defensive end, but by moving him inside, he's now becoming an even more athletic defensive tackle. He's got a tremendous motor. He's got really good quickness. He's really sudden off of the ball. His spin move I think is really, really good, which is one of his big plays last week he made off of his spin move.
His tenacity is unbelievable. His quickness is unbelievable and he's not the biggest guy. I mean, he's big enough at 285 pounds, but there's much bigger defensive tackles. I think it's a combination of his strength -- he's got one of the strongest power cleans and deadlifts on our team -- and his quickness, which makes him so disruptive in there.
We've been pleased with him that that's going to need to continue. I think the fact that we were able to play some more guys in terms of number of reps on Saturday, allowed him to stay fresh longer and we want to continue to do that.
Q. I wanted to talk about how it's a relatively young team but it seems to be mature in terms of the way they compete. You talk about, last Saturday night, they don't crumble and they don't point fingers. Where do you think that comes from, how do you explain that?
COACH FRANKLIN: I think it comes from a lot of factors. I think first it comes down to kids from this region of the country, I think they are hard-nosed, blue collar guys and they have been coached very well in high school. I think all those things factor into it.
I think it has to do with how we practice and how we coach them. Put them in really difficult, challenging situations. I think the fact that they go into the classroom and compete with some of the finest students in the world, that creates mental toughness, as well.
I think the fact that a lot of our guys, especially 49 of them, have been through a lot of different things on and off the field the last couple years. I think all these things factor into it.
You guys have heard me say it before: I feel like there's tremendous parallels between the game of football and life, and I think you see things off the field, you see things on the field. You see things in the classroom. We've made tremendous improvements in the classroom, and I think that discipline shows up everywhere, and we believe that. We believe that, we truly do and we're committed to that.
Q. Christian Hackenberg was sacked five times the other night, took some other hits when he released the ball. What are your thoughts about his durability, and how much concern do you have at all the shots he's taken in the first three games?
COACH FRANKLIN: We have to do a better job of limiting how many times he's getting hit. There's no doubt about that. I think, again, being able to get the running game more involved will help with that.
But that's why he's worked so hard in the offseason, and he's been great. He really has been great, making plays with his feet, moving the pocket, things like that, extending plays. But there's no doubt about it. We've kind of talked about it ad nauseum. We have talked about it enough. We've got to get the running game going and we've got to protect the quarterback. We take great pride in those things.
Q. You mentioned a little bit earlier that the team needs to improve communication and coordination. How much of that comes from guys getting more experience playing together and how much of that can be affected by the staff during the week and in practice?
COACH FRANKLIN: I think it's all of the above. I think, as fans and as coaches and as players, we'd all like it to happen faster. But those things take time, and I did see improvement. You're watching the tape and I did see improvement this past week. We've still got a ways to go. But they are doing a good job of that.
A lot of times when I talk about communication, that deals with really being confident and brave to make a call. Because what happens is, if you're the tight end and tackle working together or the center and guard working together, or the back side guard and tackle working together, usually the first person to make a call, then it affects everybody else's call from that point on and who they are working to and things like that.
A lot of times when you have a young, inexperienced line, they don't want to make the call, because if someone makes the call and it's the wrong call, then there's someone to blame. And I don't want them to approach it that way. I want them to make a decision. They think it's the right decision for the team and move on; if we make a mistake, we learn from it.
No different than the head coach calling a quick kick that probably wasn't a right decision. You learn from it, you man up to it, you own it, and move forward and you learn from the situation. I want our guys to take the same approach. And I think they understand that.
So, it's going to take some time. We've got to do it in practice over and over and over and over again. They have got to trust one another and they have got to be willing to communicate and work together, and make sure that that information gets communicated from the front side tight end all the way to the back side tight end or tackle, depending on the formation.
Q. You talk about developing offensive linemen, developing young players. Can I assume that when all you guys came in, the staff, you've got a longterm type of plan for this program?
COACH FRANKLIN: Yes, sir.
Q. Just how satisfied are you with the progress at this early juncture?
COACH FRANKLIN: That's a good question. I think that's one of the things that we do a pretty good job of is, I've been a lot of places where your focus is so much on the game that week that you're not really connecting with the freshmen. And you have a lot of turnover with the freshmen class because those guys get sent to scout team and they are kind of forgotten about.
I meet with the freshmen probably once a week. I'm actually meeting with them I think Friday (this week). I think that's so important to keep those guys connected and involved. On Tuesdays we do the Lion’s den drill. You guys have been the Lion's den drill. Now the Lion's den drill on Tuesdays is not for our guys that are playing on Saturday. But it's an opportunity for the young guys to get up in front of the whole team and compete. And that's been great to watch those guys improving each week.
The other thing we'll do is during the two bye weeks, we'll have scrimmages where we'll have the young guys scrimmage and play, really basic game plans to go out and have fun and enjoy themselves, and also to see that they got bright futures here. And for us to evaluate them. I think that's really, really important, as well.
So we try to balance that, no different than a lot of times, coaches recruit in the offseason and then once the season starts, recruiting goes away and they are 100 percent on football.
To me, recruiting and coaching and developing, you're really splitting those things year around. So we take a lot of pride in that. We take a lot of pride in developing the whole program and developing the whole kid.
Q. I wanted to ask you about your tight ends. What do you think about the group so far, their production? Happy or not, beyond Jesse James, the guys behind him?
COACH FRANKLIN: I think it's still evolving and I think we've made improvements from last year. Everybody gets so caught up in catches and yards, but that really hasn't been our focus. Our focus with them since the day we arrived on campus was their impact in the running game and that area still needs to improve.
I think the offensive line hears a lot about what they need to do, and I think the tight ends are a big part of that, as well. I think we have to make sure the tight ends and the O-line are working together and finishing well and finishing blocks. That's the area we have to improve. I think when that happens, you'll see bigger plays happen in the passing game because of play-action and things like that. That's what happened with Jesse a few weeks ago.
They are doing some nice things in the passing game but we never questioned that. It's the running game. So that's all those guys that are a part of that: The O-line, the coaches, the players, the tight ends, that's everybody working together to get our O-line where it needs to be.
The thing is, sometimes it's because of lack of size. We have the size and the strength at that position to be dominant in the running game, and that's the next step we need to take.
Q. You’ve talked a lot so far about somebody stepping up and making plays in the secondary and getting those turnovers and also someone stepping up and taking the second corner position. How important is it that you got the turnovers but that Trevor (Williams) got two of the interceptions and seemed to come up and step up and take that position?
COACH FRANKLIN: I think it was very, very important for us. I think the play-making, I think the turnovers, I think the confidence, I think the execution, all of those things are important. And you love to see young men have success. When they work so hard at something, you love to see them go out there and get rewarded for all the hard work that they have put in.
Life isn't fair and it doesn't always go that way but you just keep working and you keep a great attitude and eventually good things are going to happen for you, and I think Trevor is a great example of that. I hope our younger players, and I hope that players at other positions, see the same thing. You just come in and work hard every single day and have a good attitude and eventually good things will happen for you.
So I expect Trevor to make a big jump when it comes to confidence and play making from this experience this past weekend.
Q. I wanted to ask you about your punt return game, whether you're still trying to find your way there as far as getting as much out of it as you want.
COACH FRANKLIN: When it comes to punt return, I think right now we kind of know who we are and what we have. I think one of the things that I want to see us do is there's a couple balls that we're letting get to the ground.
I think Jesse Della Valle does a great job of going up and catching punts and making really good decisions, but there's a couple of the short ones where I think he can really bring us all value, or he runs up in there and either somebody makes contact with him and we get a penalty, or he's able to catch that ball before it hits the ground and that maybe saves us 15 to 20 yards.
I think what we are also hoping is, we continue to kind of work guys back there that maybe have the ability to create a little bit more big play potential. But, it starts with catching the ball.
We need someone that's going to consistently catch the ball, first of all, and then their role will grow into that position. But you've got to have those two things. You've got to catch the ball first and make great decisions, and then be able to be more of a playmaker.
We have a bunch of guys back there in practice every single day working at it. We feel like right now our best option is Jesse Della Valle, and he's done a great job over his career here.
Q. A lot of defensive players after the game talked about how they are really impressed that they know what plays are coming, and they only see a couple plays a game from the opponent that they haven't seen or haven't been told about or practiced against. They attribute that to Bob Shoop, of course and the rest of the defensive staff. Is that something you see as a strength of the defensive staff in terms of their preparation and having the players ready to go for every scenario they are probably going to see on the field?
COACH FRANKLIN: Yeah, I think like I mentioned before, I think Bob does a really good job of studying tendencies, formation tendencies, backfield tendencies, field zone tendencies.
I think that's where that economics degree from Yale really helps them out. He's got a really pretty good understanding of what to expect and he trains his guys during practice like that.
So, certain formations, they are expecting probably one of three plays, and his calls are based on that and the players' anticipation is based on those things.
I've been on the headset with the defense where Bob's called out 75 percent of the plays before they have been run. He's called out, "we are going to get an interception here" and things like that. It's pretty impressive at times, it really is.
And I think that confidence that he has coming into the game, because of the amount of time he's put in, spills over to our players, and I think the same thing with our staff. I think the fact that our defensive staff has been together for four years, with the exception of Terry (Smith), I think is really helpful. And I think the fact that Terry is working in the secondary with Bob has been really valuable.
So they all bring unique skills to that side of the ball, our defensive staff. They all complement Bob really, really well. So I think that's what you're seeing.
Q. The first three weeks of the season were pretty travel heavy, and now you're focused on UMass, but four of the next five are at home, you play three games in five weeks, there's two bye weeks in there. How important is it to find a rhythm with the comforts of home and be able to focus on things, rather than, "do we have our whistles packed up in a box?"
COACH FRANKLIN: I think your point is really valid. I probably have learned that more over the last couple years than anything, and I still struggle with this personally.
My answer in life for everything is: More. You want to have success, you work harder, you work longer, you do this, you do that. That's just kind of how I was raised and how I was brought up personally and professionally.
But I think the older you get, you realize that it's not always about the schemes. It's about chemistry; it's about morale, [morale] is so important, and a big part of morale is making sure guys are well rested and healthy and fresh and that's physically, as well as mentally. And that's not just the players; that's the coaching staff, as well.
So I think probably more than ever, the last couple years, where there's times where we can throw the guys a bone, the players, the coaches and everything, to take advantage of that, we do it.
And I think that's where Dwight Galt comes in handy, his 30 years of experience, as a father, as a parent of a Division I player, as a coach, is really valuable.
That's where a guy like Brent Pry as the assistant head coach will come into my office and say, "Hey, tomorrow is the first day of school in State College, can we all take our kids to school the first day?" I had no idea it was the first day of school. But once he said it, I was like: "I'm so glad you said it. Awesome. I'm going to take my kids to school, too."
So I think those things are really important for all of us, for the health of our families, for the health of the coaches and for our team. That's where taking the guys bowling in pre-season and going to the movies and things like that, where they are expecting a practice and you do some of those things.
The other thing that I learned years ago is, I've worked on some staffs where the practice schedule at the beginning of the season is exactly the same for the bowl game, and it really shouldn't be. Your practices over the season should start to cut back, and those are the things that I think I've learned, because I'm kind of a hard-charging guy. That's important.