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James Franklin Weekly Press Conference Notes: Northwestern Week

A week after defeating #mosthatedrival Indiana, the Lions are on the road for a sleepy start in Evanston

Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

Opening Statement

  • Great respect for Pat Fitzgerald and Northwestern, they’re a fundamentally sound team with great staff longevity
  • Both Billy Fessler and Blake Gillikin have brothers that play for Northwestern, so there’s a good familial bond between the players and programs
  • Clayton Thorson, Justin Jackson, and Tyler Lancaster stand out as playmakers for the Wildcats
  • Franklin took a minute to thank the entire Penn State staff, including coaches, doctors, trainers, and strength staff, that work hard every day to put the players in the best position for success possible


  • On Tyler Davis’ missed field goals, and perhaps taking him off kickoffs to focus on field goals: Kickoffs are better than ever, and if you take the blocks out of the equation, field goals are fine too. Very comfortable with Davis as the kicker, no changes expected.
  • On Irvin Charles proving himself on special teams, and whether there will be more action for him in the passing game: They don’t plan on throwing to anyone in particular, but see how the game goes. Players just have to take advantage when their number is called. Now that the depth is better, some players are just going to have to be patient, which is a good thing to learn at a young age.
  • On Mike Gesicki and the tight ends: No update on Gesicki, though he is expected to play on Saturday. Both Pancoast and Holland have developed well, and their opportunities will come.
  • On the speed of the defense improving over the last few years, and how it’s affecting production this year: Team speed is up in general, but on any given defensive play, you’ll see 8 or 9 guys running toward the ball, while the last few don’t think they’ll be needed on the stop - need to get all 11 players running to the ball on all plays. Cited an example where Oruwariye missed a tackle, but forced the opposing player inside, and Windsor came over from his interior line position to help make the stop.
  • On the lack of Tommy Stevens the last couple games: Tommy is doing great, but it’s like the Charles question - it will just depend on the way the game is going. If the two-quarterback set will help the team, they’ll run it; if not, they won’t.
  • On how Trace McSorley is a better quarterback this year: We’re 5-0 this year, whereas last year we were 3-2, end of discussion. He’s at 65% completion, up from 58% last year. First five games last year had a TD-to-INT ratio of 6-3, now he’s at 12-4. He’s much further ahead this year at the same point compared to last year.
  • On how they’ve developed a special teams unit that is top 15 nationally in kickoff return, punt return, and punt coverage: The staff has spent a lot of time coaching up special teams, and investing in fundamentals. Tyler Davis, Blake Gillikin, and Kyle Vasey have all being doing well. Coverage guys like Dae’Lun Darien, Irvin Charles, Cam Brown, and Nick Scott have been excellent. The years-long puzzle is finally coming together.
  • On how the offensive line can improve: Finishing blocks is the biggest thing. Holding blocks for just a half second longer and the play is wide open. Sometimes the defense just wins a play, but if the offensive linemen play more aggressively, the plays will come. That’s true in all phases of the game.
  • On how Charles Huff has built a good special teams unit that swarms to the ball: The staff’s vision and plan have finally started to come together after investing time and fundamentals. It’s a lot of things combined that have made the special teams good.
  • On Northwestern lacking star power, but still being a tough opponent: They have players that are drafted every year, and are in a similar situation as Vanderbilt, where the higher academic schools are perceived to have poorer athletes. They are smart, well-disciplined players, in a good scheme. They have all the necessary ingredients to be successful.
  • On how much latitude Trace has at the line to change the play: Trace knows this offense really well, but they run the check-with-me system. That system puts most of the last-second decision-making to the coaches that have put in untold hours studying film, rather than the players who have spent perhaps 20 hours prepping for a single opponent. Trace then can make adjustments in protections, and when he’s on the sideline can get some more feedback from Joe Moorhead.
  • On trying to prepare for two quarterbacks, a la Indiana: They knew both quarterbacks would play, and anticipated it, even if it’s not ideal for game prep. The defense knew when a different QB was on the field, and changed their protections accordingly.
  • On the offensive line not being quite as good as hoped, despite a large amount of returning players: There has not been as much consistency at right tackle as would be hoped - three guys have played there, slowing development. Will Fries had a start as a redshirt freshman, which isn’t ideal, but he’s getting great experience. Chasz Wright has been in and out, and Andrew Nelson is still working on recovery, so the line is about where it should be, given the issues.
  • On the Northwestern secondary having a lot of returning players from last year, and how the receivers match up: They have a lot of faith in the receivers in every game, not just some weeks. Teams have to account for Saquon Barkley, and that makes it tough for opposing defensive backs. This offense is designed to do whatever the defense will let them, not just smash the ball down their throats. There are always areas to improve, such as getting better in the first half - no questions from the press so far this year on that area, as they’ve gotten better at it. Everyone in America would like to shoot the three or dunk the ball, but no one is good at free throws anymore - this team will do what they’re good at.
  • On Stevens needing to have patience, and whether James Franklin is patient: He is not patient, going back to his own playing days. At 18 years old, he had to sit behind a 24-year-old former Marine who won the starting quarterback job, when he knew he could be successful. It’s easy to say that the backups need patience, but it’s tough to live through. That’s what makes a coach’s job tough.
  • On Chasz Wright playing every third series, with Will Fries playing the last five series: Not going to discuss with the media.
  • On whether Franklin will ever admit he’s having a terrible day: Will not ever do that, ever.
  • On Saquon Barkley becoming like Neo in the Matrix (yes, really), and how he continually improves: Everyone in the program gets better each year, putting in work during the off-season. He’s still responding to workouts the way a freshman would, which is not very common. He’s also working behind an improved offensive line, with improved quarterbacks, with improved tight ends, with improved wide receivers, with improved special teams units. A lot of factors have gone into why Barkley seems better this year than last year.