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James Franklin Press Conference: Northwestern

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Northwestern, Northwestern, Northwestern, Northwestern, and Northwestern.

Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

The undefeated Nittany Lions have a veteran Northwestern team coming to Happy Valley for a homecoming matchup that James Franklin hopes to sell out.  "...they are a no-huddle tempo team that does a lot of communication at the line of scrimmage.  So, what I would love to do is make it impossible for them to communicate at the line of scrimmage with our fans and our students doing a great job there."

The offense was able to establish more of a run game against UMass, but the offensive line will be put to the test again in upcoming weeks.

As has become Coach Franklin’s signature, his focus this week is "Northwestern, Northwestern, Northwestern, Northwestern, and Northwestern."  There’s no looking ahead to the bye or "bigger" opponents.

Hack:

Q.  I was wondering if you could evaluate Christian Hackenberg's play in the UMass game and I was wondering what you, John Donovan and Ricky want to see from him in terms of improving over the final two thirds of the season?

COACH FRANKLIN:  I think he's played extremely well.  To me, I don't really evaluate things by one game or a series or a play, it's overall.  Let's be honest, for most of this season so far, he's shouldered a lot of the offense.  So, now that the running game is getting going, I think that's going to be really, really helpful, but like always, we're evaluating quarterbacks about third down percentage, which we're doing a really nice job of.  Red zone, getting the ball in the end zone, which we need to did a better job of.  Touchdown to interception ratio.  But most importantly, wins and losses.

Most of those categories he's doing a nice job for us.  I do think that the penalties on offense have factored into that.  They have been drive killers and we got to get those things cleaned up.

Q.  A game like (last) Saturday's, how much easier is it for Hack, and I'm not talking about in just the lesser amount of hits he's taking, but when the run game is in sync like that he doesn't have to rely so heavily on the pass.  So how much easier does it make for Hack when you're running the ball like that?

COACH FRANKLIN:  Well, I think it's really, it's helpful for Hack. I think it's also helpful for the play caller.  When the run game is working, you double your playbook.  It also helps in protection because you're able to wear guys down in the running game.

It takes pressure off the quarterback so he doesn't feel like he has to make every throw.  I think the fact that Hack's been able to pull the ball down a few times a game and take off and get some positive yardage has been really effective for us.  We don't ever want him to be what people would consider a dual threat quarterback, but we would love for him to be able to pull it down four times a game and be able to get us six to 12 yards and then get down without taking a hit.

Those things are really, really valuable.  To me, they're going to have a huge impact on interceptions and they're going to have a huge impact on third down percentage.  So, we want to continue to do those things.

Q.  To followup on the question about Christian being able to pick up yardage for you guys with his feet.  He's lowered his shoulder a few times this year to finish some of those runs at the end of plays.  Do you like that competitiveness of that play for him to end a play like that or are you trying to coach that out of him that he takes those slides and not takes those unnecessary hits?

COACH FRANKLIN:  I love it and I hate it.  I love it from a competitive standpoint.  That's kind of who I want us to be.  But that doesn't make a whole lot of sense for us right now.  And that's not smart.

So, he's got to be calculated. Now, if it's third-and-three and he needs it to keep the drive alive or to win the game, or fourth down, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.  But those other situations, get as much as you can, get down, get as much as you can, get out of bounds.

Linebackers:

Q.  With your linebackers, early in the season that was a place of concern for you, at least depthwise.  With the starters, the performance you've gotten on Nyeem, Brandon, Mike, where are you at with those guys right now?

COACH FRANKLIN:  The linebackers, I think, have played probably above our expectations.  I think Brent Pry, our linebackers coach and codefensive coordinator, does a great job of teaching fundamentals and understanding the concept of the scheme and how they fit.

We always felt good about Mike (Hull), although he was making a move.  I think (Nyeem) Wartman and (Brandon) Bell had both shown flashes on previous film, as well as during the spring that they had the ability to do it.

But to be successful, what we talk to our players all the time about is about being consistent.  Anybody can make a play.  Time and time, can you do it over and over and over again, can you do your job consistently.

I think they have done that.  I do think the fact that we're able to kind of rotate some other guys in there, whether that's the Star or whether that's the number twos, I think that's been helpful as well.

I think the fact that our defensive line has been so disruptive, or guys like Austin, that have had to be double teamed, it makes it difficult to come off on those linebackers.  So, a lot of different reasons why they have been successful.

But I'm really proud of them and we got to continue to grow there.  Which to me is another thing which I stated in the beginning is exciting, those guys haven't played a whole lot of football and they're playing pretty well right now.  And they still have a lot of room for growth as well.

Running backs:

Q.  You've been using three main tailbacks.  How difficult is it for you guys to try to figure out when to use each one, how to use each one, how to mix them up, because they all have very good qualities, they have all been contributors.  Can you talk a little bit about that?

COACH FRANKLIN:  Yes, sir. We don't really kind of over think it.  Basically, each one of them is going to get a series to start the game.  And then we also have plays in the game plan that are tagged for specific players.  So this may be Bill Belton's series, but this play is tagged for Akeel (Lynch), based on his strengths.  So things like that.

So that's where you'll see guys kind of running in and out and mix some things up.  But basically we're going to allow each one of those guys to get a series and whoever the guy that looks like is being the most effective, then we'll go with them a little bit longer or maybe even go with them the rest of the game, it just kind of depends.

We haven't really got to that point yet, all three have shown that they could be effective when we're getting movement up front and creating space.  So that's kind of where we're at, at this point, but we're not really over thinking it.  I don't think one guy's really separated himself over the other.  We think we’ve got three quality backs that we feel good about.

Q.  You mentioned earlier that each of the three running backs brings some things to the table.  What do you like about Akeel Lynch, what are some things that he brings to the table that make him either unique or that give him an advantage on the field?

COACH FRANKLIN:  Well, obviously he's, I've said this before, he's kind of got a combination of traits.  He's got Bill's speed and some of his elusiveness and quickness.  He's got almost Zach's size, so he's able to run with power and those things as well.  He's still a young back and learning every single day from an experience standpoint and things like that.

But he kind of brings a little bit of both of those guys together.  Right now, his opportunity with those two seniors and learning from them, not only on what they do on gameday but just kind of how they conduct and carry themselves day in and day out in meetings and practices and things like that, it's extremely valuable.

I think the other thing that's helpful is that's a position where we have great competition.  So, if guys don't bring their A game, they're going to lose their jobs.  And that's what you really want to create at every single position, because that's human nature, you're going to work harder if you know you got a guy behind you that's capable of taking your job.  And we don't have that at every single position, that's where we need to get.

Special Teams:

Q.  I think you guys played 62 guys on Saturday.  I think you only had two punt runners out.  (Jesse) Della Valle and (Gregg) Garrity.  I think they (UMass) only punted five times, maybe not many opportunities, but do you want to try anybody else back there?  I know you talked last week about wanting to make sure you were comfortable with guys being back there but are you sort of content to just use Jesse and Gregg or do you want to look for more and what do you need to see to maybe try some other guys back there?

COACH FRANKLIN:  Well, first of all, I would love for one of those guys, especially Jesse, to start gaining more yardage.  He's been really successful in catching the ball and making great decisions, but we would like a little bit more playmaking.  If that comes from him, great.  But, we have some other guys that we're working back there at practice every single day and they may be catching it consistently, but their fundamentals and techniques aren't great or their fundamentals and techniques aren't great, but they're not catching the ball as consistently as they need to and things like that.

So, number one, they’ve got to catch the ball.  And then, number two, if you can find somebody that has the ability to be electric with the ball in their hands and make some plays, then you’ve got the whole package and you got something special.  But I'm not going to give up the consistency of catching the ball for the play making at this point.

Offensive Line:

Q.  Can you talk about Andrew Nelson and his play on the offensive line?

COACH FRANKLIN:  Yeah, he's been good.  Nellie's kind of like the dancing bear.  I mean, he is big, he is strong, he is athletic, he's so light on his feet, you're talking about a guy that's 315, 320 pounds and really light on his feet.

I think that the next stage for him, the next phase for him is to become a road grader and be really, really physical in the run game.

Pass protection and things like that, getting him to pull and run out in space, that comes natural to him.  The next phase for him is on game days, to be a really physical, nasty, aggressive player.  I think that's happening over time.  I've been really pleased with him.  He's done some really, really nice things for us.  I think he's got a very bright future.

Young Guys:

Q.  You were able to play some of our freshmen DB's with the 1's (first team) last week when it was still kind of a tight game.  How do you go about deciding when those guys are going to be in there and how important is it for those young kids to play with guys who have been out there all day?

COACH FRANKLIN:  Yep, very much...so very, very important for the growth of our program and the confidence for those kids and the confidence for the coaches.  Typically, you're looking at this throughout the week, you may say we're planning on playing a guy and then he doesn't have a great week of practice and you don't feel real confident of putting him in there, especially a young player.

But typically you kind of have an idea of what you're thinking throughout the week and then Friday or Saturday morning, depending upon when our staff meeting is, based on the time of the game, we'll go through offense, defense, kind of go through all of our notes and then we kind of talk about the depth chart and how we're planning on playing guys.

So it may be Jordan Lucas and Grant Haley, we're going to go three to one.  So, three series (Lucas) to one series (Haley).  Or it may be two to one, with Trevor (Williams) and Christian (Campbell) or whatever it may be.

Or we may say, "okay, this is this kid's first time really playing on offense or defense, so we want to get him one series in the first half and see how he does and then that may mean one series in the second half or two series and kind of grow from there."

So, what you hope is that a guy goes in there on limited reps and has some success and builds the confidence of the coaches and himself and it grows from there.

But I think it's very, very important.  When you can get a guy out there for one or two series in each half as a starter, that's going to help us in the fourth quarter and that's going to help us later in the season keeping these guys as fresh as we possibly can.

Q.  You mentioned before, and Christian mentioned before, that you guys are the second youngest team in college football.  From a coaching perspective, how much does that change on a weekly basis the sort of ratio to what you want to work on as a team versus maybe working on things that guys still have to work on as a young team, maybe versus the fact if they were a veteran squad.

COACH FRANKLIN:  I don't know if it changes a whole lot, because where I think that you make mistakes as well is you start to get a little bit, maybe you have a veteran team and you start saying, "well, we don't have to do these things because we're veteran."

We don't believe in that.  To me, we're going to have our practice divided up no different than what teachers do when it comes to lesson plans.  It's part, part, whole.  And we try to do that.

So, you're always trying to develop fundamentals and technique with all your guys and then you go into individual drills to group drills to team drills.  So, those are the building blocks that you're trying to take.

What you really hope, if I'm answering your question correctly, is by the time you get to the fifth, sixth, seventh game of the year, that those guys now that have been playing are not freshmen any more.  They're veterans.  They have been around it long enough.

The guys that haven't been playing, they have still grown and evolved that if they need to, they can jump in and play for you.

So, I don't think you approach it a whole lot different with a young team compared to an experienced team, because you want to stick to your plan; if your plan makes sense.  It's just like people that maybe after a loss they go back and change their plan.

Well, the outcome should not dictate what your doing.  Now you're always trying to modify and tweak things and grow, but if your plan is right, you stick to your plan.

Starting Slow:

Q.  Northwestern has scored 42 points after halftime, gotten off to some slow starts.  Your team has also gotten off to some slow starts.  How important is it for you to start fast in this game to a team that adjusts well after halftime?

COACH FRANKLIN:  I guess I don't completely look at it that way.  But, yeah, I don't think there's any doubt, being able to play well and play well early is important in all three phases.  I don't think there's any doubt about that.  I don't know if I necessarily would see it the same way.  I do think like I mentioned before, being home is going to be an advantage for us.  And I think our offense is building confidence every week and they're getting better.  That's what we have to do, we have to get all three phases playing well together at the same time.  Which is the challenging thing at any level.