Exiting the sultry late summer humidity for the climate-controlled familiar confines of the press room, the legion of journalists covering your Penn State Nittany Lions football squad impatiently elbowed their way toward seats - and not merely to escape the heat outside. No, friends, things have changed in Happy Valley. Viewed from distance, the sheer anticipation created by James Franklin among the faithful for the upcoming 2018 foosball season stands in stark contrast to almost every season from the past 20 years - but especially from the tumult of his hiring.
What an evolution. Just 4 seasons ago, after taking the dais from then-acting Athletic Director Dave Joyner, an effervescent, barely contained James Franklin boldly announced his intention to serve as Penn State’s “Unity Coach”, and proclaimed his immediately availability for inflating balloons at childrens’ birthday parties. He was a bundle of energy in perpetual motion at the speed of light - a frenetic blur on the brink of explosion.
But at today’s presser, Coach Franklin presented a wholly different leadership profile.
How different? Well, friends, this press conference was unique. Almost immediately, the usual noise from journalist conversations was cancelled out by the gentle sound of a small brook trickling in the background. Then, a repetitive chorus of “ohm” led by Sean Spencer and Matt Limegrover filled the air and persuaded our breathing to match its slack tempo. Within 60 seconds, the entire room emptied its nervous anticipation. And with a canvas backdrop of the Himalayas borrowed from the Art department framing the rear of the stage, Penn State coach James Franklin, in full Lama regalia, strode effortlessly to the podium.
The flowing robes, the grace... Striking. We all sat transfixed.
“The water flows over the rock, making it smooth. But the rock does not grow angry.”
“Progressions, blitz dogs - the ball’s home is in the end zone.”
Wow. Completely different. Peace and harmony reigned.
And Then The Presser Started
HEAD COACH JAMES FRANKLIN: I like where we’re at. I think it’s a tremendous challenge that we’ve got. I think App State, if you look at what they have been able to do in their short time at Division I has been really remarkable in a lot of ways. You know, three Bowl games, have won all three Bowl games. If you look at I think their record over the last 45 games, they are in the top six in the country over their last 45 games, so they have done some really good things. I think they are 36-9 over the last 41 games and that’s with Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson and Wisconsin in terms of number of wins.
You look at some of the teams they have played not only in the Bowl games but in the regular season, no disrespect to anybody but they really probably should have beat Wake Forest. Last year they lost 20-19, Wake Forest blocked a field goal, a 39-yard field goal with 35 seconds left to go in the game.
They had Tennessee beat, had to go to over time at Tennessee for Tennessee to beat them two years ago and then obviously everybody is well aware of the Michigan; at, I think they were the second I-AA team to beat a ranked opponent.
So great things. Scott Satterfield has been a part of all those things, the head coach. Got a lot of respect for him and what he’s been able to do in his career, not only as an offensive guy in terms of quarterbacks, receivers; in a short time as an offensive coordinator and then becoming a head coach there. He’s an alum, so that’s special for him, as well.
Q. What did you see from Jan Johnson in camp, and what do you expect from him now and has he been awarded a scholarship yet?HEAD COACH JAMES FRANKLIN: Jan has been very steady. He’s very smart. He’s very consistent. He’s very physical, especially within the box.
You know, I think you guys have heard us talk about before, probably one of the more intelligent players we have. Asks great questions of the coaches, and has been very productive in the classroom, as well and has earned everybody’s respect. His teammates’ respect, the coaches’ respect and he’s earned that starting position.
I do think it’s going to be a battle. All those linebacker positions are going to be a battle all year long, but I don’t think there’s any doubt that Jan Johnson gives us the best opportunity to win on Saturday. And his status has not changed at this point.
Q. I wanted to ask you about your young wide outs, your two freshmen and your redshirt freshmen, your thoughts on what they showed you in August?HEAD COACH JAMES FRANKLIN: Could you name who you’re talking about? We have a bunch of those guys. You said just two freshmen.
Okay. Yeah. Jahan Dotson has really had a productive camp. I think you saw, we put something out the other day, he led us for touchdowns during camp. He’s still under-sized. He’s got to get bigger and stronger in the weight room but football comes very natural to him. Things make sense to him. He’s able to take things from meetings to the field.
He’s a guy we think could factor in for us at some point and the coaches would be very comfortable and confident with playing him. We’ll see how that plays out right now. We’ll have him slated as yellow, a guy we’ll try to play at four games at some point, whether that’s early, middle of the season or late in the season, to solve problems from an injury perspective or whatever it may be.
Shorter got dinged up during camp. Was really on a roll. Will probably see significant action early in the season, but was a little dinged up and missed some time. He’s big and physical and reminds you a lot of Juwan Johnson. Excited about those two guys’s future.
Then KJ, when you talk to our defensive coaches, we do a lot of kind of interaction between the offense and the defense, and having discussions, having the opposite side of the ball rank the position; so having the DBs rank the receivers, the receivers rank the DBs and so on and so forth; having discussions as a coaching staff.
When you talk to our defensive coaches about guys that scare them when they got the ball in their hand, KJ is one of the guys at the top of the list. If we can get him involved in offense and get the ball in his hands and if we can get the ball in his hands on special teams, then we’d like to be able to do that, because he’s an explosive player and he’s also been a really good leader; and what I mean by that is maybe not the leader that you think of when I say that; but a guy that brings enthusiasm and energy to meetings and the locker room, similar to the way Marcus did for four years for us.
I think those three guys will not only have great years for us this year but also their careers. I’m excited about their futures.
Q. How are you feeling about your depth across the board at defensive line coming out of camp and where does Shane Simmons fit into that, not being on the depth chart?HEAD COACH JAMES FRANKLIN: You know, excited about our defensive line, and really, the growth that we have made there in a short period of time.
At defensive end, I think we are as good as we’ve been. Probably the best defensive end unit that I’ve had in my time as a head coach. I think Shane obviously would be a huge factor in that. He got dinged up a little bit during camp. We do expect him back. How quickly that is is unsure at this moment. We’ll know more on Thursday, but we feel really good about defensive end.
Obviously getting Shane back will take it to a whole other level because he had a great spring and a great summer and a great camp.
At defensive tackle, I think we’ve still got some questions here. I think we feel a lot better than we did coming into the camp. I think we feel like we have a lot of depth, but who are the guys that are really going to take on the responsibility and say we are the five guys that are going to play a lot in the rotation; there’s been clearly separation.
I don’t know if there necessarily is with that right now. We’d like there to be at least two, if not five guys, that we feel like have separated themselves and take control of that. They are showing all really good signs but I think the name of the game for us and what we talk to the players all the time about is consistency, and being able to be in the gap that you’re supposed to be consistently; being physical and striking your keys consistently and then making play when is you’re there.
We’ve still got some questions that we’ve got to get answered there, but to be honest with you, by this point, we feel good about it, but we won’t completely know until we get out there under the light.
Q. The offensive line, did you settle on the question marks that you had going into the season, at least from the perspective of five starters, and then the depth behind them, like a 2-deep?HEAD COACH JAMES FRANKLIN: Yeah, I think right now, we’re very comfortable with the six guys that we have listed. Wright and Fries, that will probably be a game-day decision, but the reality of it is we feel like we can play and play well, with either one of those guys.
Neither one have completely separated themselves from the other and a lot of times, when that happens, you’re concerned because you’re not sure if you have one starter. I actually think we have two.
Obviously both of them have started a bunch of games here and we’ve been able to win Bowl games and high-level Big Ten games with both of those guys playing, so feel good about those six, and then I think we’ve got, you know, a combination after that that we feel good about. We feel good about Thorpe; we feel good about Simpson and Miranda and Des Holmes, but I don’t know if it’s necessarily purely a 2-deep.
I think we still have some moving parts based on some guys going down to make sure we get the best five guys on the field from an experience standpoint.
Q. Your linebackers, three of the young guys, Micah, Jesse and Ellis, how have they done, and how much do you think they are going to be pushing for time the first couple of weeks? And just secondly, the loss of not having Manny in the linebacker room, can you just speak on that a little bit.HEAD COACH JAMES FRANKLIN: Yeah, a couple things.
I think at linebacker, I think you’re going to see a lot of those guys. I think they are going to get a lot of reps. I don’t think there’s, again, a huge gap between our ones and our twos. So I think you’re going to see maybe the twos get close, if not the same amount of reps as the ones at a lot of those positions.
I think Cam Brown is probably a guy that’s differentiated himself and separated himself a little bit from the pack, and then there’s a gap, you know, between maybe his backups.
I think Koa has done a good job, played a lot of football for them and I think Micah is making a strong push there, and then I think Jan, between Ellis and Luketa, there’s going to be a strong push there and you’re going to see a lot of guys rotating and getting time.
Once again, it’s like a lot of things that come out and become public. No. 1, we love Manny. We want nothing but success for him and his future. I think Manny has a very, very bright future. But for us, we had been kind of working, you know, with this, anyway.
Again, there’s a lot of details of this matter that you guys aren’t aware of, but it really had not changed a whole lot for us at this point in the season.
Q. You mentioned the start of training camp, that you didn’t want people to think that the program had arrived after back-to-back 11-win seasons; that you still wanted to work hard and with a sense of urgency. Do you think the focus of work ethic on your guys in practice and training camp had that sense of urgency and desire to get better?HEAD COACH JAMES FRANKLIN: Yeah. I feel good about it. It’s funny, I’m writing this note down. You just kind of made me think about something I want to cover with the team in the team meeting.
But yeah, I’ve been very impressed. I think our culture is really strong right now. I think our chemistry is really strong. I think our leadership is different in terms of we don’t have a huge senior class and those types of things.
But yeah, I like where we’re at, I really do, and you see that in the weight room. You see that in the locker room. It probably doesn’t sound like a big deal but our locker room is as clean as it’s ever been. I think you guys know a few years ago, we bought our leadership counsel and the coaches, the book Legacy, which is one of my all-time favorite books and in that book they talk about the leaders, sweeping the sheds, basically cleaning the locker room out, and that no role is to big or too small for anyone, whether it’s the head coach or the captain or whoever it is, is going to pick up something that’s on the floor.
It probably sounds like a little thing to people that are watching this, but our players’ locker room is as clean as it’s ever been. I think that’s a tremendous example of discipline and leadership on our team. I think we’re in a good place. I know talking to the strength staff, they feel really good about where we are and how our guys are working.
You talk to the training staff; you talk to the equipment staff; you talk to the academic staff -- because you learn things by talking to all those groups. There’s usually some places in the program where the guys go and fuss or moan and complain, and you learn a lot about that. You learn about what the guys are fussing and moaning and complaining about. But we don’t have a whole lot of that right now in any of the areas.
When you’ve got 120 guys on your roster, there’s usually some of that. So I think we’re in a good place. I think guys are putting the team and the program first, and they understand that they can still achieve all their individual goals, but typically, those individual goals go to guys that are part of the best teams and the best organizations, and if they were interested in individual goals and objectives, then they could have played tennis or swimming or golf or they chose to play the greatest team sport there is.
So I think our guys have really embraced that and our leadership has been tremendous with those things.
Q. Your kickers, they are a bunch of young guys that have not had the opportunity to perform under the pressure, the fishbowl and the crowds and everything; that they are going to have to perform in. What have you done to kind of get them ready for that, and what have you seen in their makeup and personality that makes you think that they will be able to deal with that?HEAD COACH JAMES FRANKLIN: The first thing I would say, this is the most competition we’ve had, and if you ask any of our players that, they will tell you the same thing. It’s the most competition we’ve had at the kicker position since we’ve been here, not even close.
We really feel like that Pinegar, Hilling, Tobin, Checa, could all kick in a game for us, whether that was kickoff or field goal, and be able to do it at a fairly high level. So the competition at practice has been really good, so I think that helps.
Then I think as coaches, we have to manage that. We had a huge discussion this morning and then also a week ago about, you know, when do you go for that field goal that’s at the top of our field goal range, or when do we use one of the best punters that we have in America at pinning people deep; or when do you go for it on fourth and sixth down or less, when you’re in that plus territory too long for a field goal but maybe you’re not gaining a whole lot by a punt and things like that. That’s a huge discussion.
That’s a huge discussion and we do it as a staff, because I want the offense and defense and special teams coaches to all be on the same page. So whatever our philosophy is, our offensive players can play with confidence knowing we’re more likely going to go for it in these situations, and that the defense backs it.
They want to see our offense be aggressive and go for a fourth down, and if it doesn’t work out, they are not hanging their head because they are bought into the philosophy, as well; and that we manage early on those young kickers and put them in advantageous situations early in the season so that we can continue to build their confidence and they have a chance to go out and be successful.
So you’ll probably see us maybe punt or go for it on fourth down early in the season on some field goals that late in the season we’re hoping to be able to go kick and go kick consistently.
Q. How did tight end competition shake down? And with the two true freshmen kids you have, where does tight end rank as a position, easier or harder to contribute early on, and is picking up the physical aspect of that position usually the biggest challenge for those younger players?HEAD COACH JAMES FRANKLIN: Yeah, I think it’s like the O-line. I think typically, those guys have a hard time playing young in their careers. Kind of like how we saw Mike Gesicki go through growing pains early on and things like that. We are at a different point as a program now.
I do think Freiermuth can factor in partly because of how talented he is and how poised he’s been through this process, but also that he’s 258, if not 60 pounds, and I think that helps the physical aspect of the game.
I think Holland and Dalton have had great camps. I think Bowers has shown flashes of being really special, really special.
I would say our tight ends are a lot like our D-tackles. I think we are talented at both those positions but we still have a lot of question marks because we’re just relying on so many guys that haven’t played a whole lot of football for us at this point.
Q. Two Altoona area guys, one, Kevin Givens, how much is his experience going to be counted on at the defensive tackle spot and what are some of the next steps he can take? And the kickers, is there any one or two things specifically about Vlad that kept him in the competition for the field goal kicking job?HEAD COACH JAMES FRANKLIN: Well, first of all, I think Vlad Hilling may be one of the most popular players on our team. The perspective that he brings to our team, the attitude. I don’t know if the guy has ever had a bad day in his life. He affects others around him, players and coaches, as well. And he’s got a really strong leg.
He has got to get more refined on his process. He kind of is like a home run hitter: He puts a big wad of bubble game in his mouth and walks up to the plate and kind of taps the plate a few times and then just cranks away, and that’s just kind of how he is as a kicker. He’s all heart, and he may have the strongest field goal leg we have, but his process needs to be a little bit more consistent so that his field goal percentage can go up a little bit.
But we love him. I think Vlad has got a very, very bright future in our program and we are so glad he’s with us and is still competing, still competing for us.
Then Kevin Givens is a grown man. He’s really grown and evolved in so many different ways in our program. He’s still got a ways to go. But I think about when we were recruiting him and he was, I think a 6-1, 237-pound or 245-pound linebacker and running back; to see where he is now, I’m proud of Kevin. He’s still got growth to make in a lot of different areas, but he is headed in the right direction, and I’m really proud of him. So I think he’s going to have a significant year for us.
Q. I know the redshirt rule has changed some things, but are there any freshmen you know will see action in those four games and already have that green light, so to speak?HEAD COACH JAMES FRANKLIN: Yeah, I probably should have brought that with me so I don’t miss anybody, but maybe you can help me with that, Kris.
Freiermuth has a green light.
Slade has a green light at this point.
Luketa has a green light.
Parsons has a green light.
And then obviously Pinegar has a green light.
I think that’s everybody that’s truly a green light I think at this point. How many did I name?
Q. Five.HEAD COACH JAMES FRANKLIN: I’m probably short two because I think the number’s seven but that’s the number I know right now. I’ll have Kris be able to reach out to you guys and let you know exactly what that list is so you know, but offhand those are the ones I can remember.
The couple I’m unsure of, I don’t want to say it and they are hearing it for the first time at the press conference.
Q. You mentioned speed with Appalachian State. How much can speed level the playing field when you have a team that may not have those other things like size and strength?HEAD COACH JAMES FRANKLIN: I think it’s probably the main factor. That’s why you look at their program and how successful they have been because that’s been their focus.
You know, you look at these types of games every single year. Usually the skill players, the back seven on defense, and the perimeter players on offense, and then we have the big skill, obviously, as well -- I don’t want Coach Limegrover to get mad at me, but the perimeter skill players usually match up very well in these types of games. It’s usually up front where it’s different.
But yeah, I think you can get away with an under-sized player as long as his quickness -- and plays to his strengths and plays down the edges and not the middle of people and things like that. I think you’ve heard me talk about before with our offensive line and defensive line, most college lines have a hard time blocking movement. If you’re going to be under-sized, obviously you’re not going to go right down the middle of people; you’re going to slant; you’re going to angle; you’re going to twist and pressure and spike, those different types of things, to play to your strengths and give your team an advantage.
I watched a Georgia game from last year. It was 0-0 until the very end of the first quarter. They had played really good on defense early in the game, and then I think Georgia scored right at the end of the first quarter. Like I told you, they took Tennessee to double overtime. Wake Forest had to block a field goal with five seconds to go (audio drop.)
I think Micah’s very similar to what we thought and very similar to the rest of class. You’re dealing with 18-year-old males, but I think we’ve done a really good job with our player development program of making sure that these guys understand the expectation and standards and the opportunity that they have and how blessed that they should feel and make sure they leave Penn State better educated and prepared for life.
You asked me specifically about Micah, but really my answer is about the whole freshmen class. The guys, they are all over the map, from Monday, Friday, it’s going to be different, but they are maturing and growing up every single day and I’m really proud of them.
Q. You mentioned Jalen Moore earlier. What challenges will he present for your defense?HEAD COACH JAMES FRANKLIN: I think he’s a home run hitter. He’s a home run hitter. There’s games where he has been highly, highly productive. There’s games where he hasn’t been, but what you’re dealing with with him is if there’s a hole, he has the ability to take it the distance, and I think that’s what happens a lot of times with coaches at the high school level and the college level and the NFL. There’s some really productive backs that aren’t really fast and are going to be able to grind out and rush for over a hundred yards and get you five or six yards a carry.
And then there’s some guys like him that can really skew the numbers because they may average four yards of rush, but then they are going to have two runs a game that are over 80 yards and spike their numbers and all those types of things and he’s that type of guy.
If you’re not sound, if you’re not in your gap, if you’re not gap responsible or over pursue or things like that, he’s a guy that can stick his foot in the ground and go 80 at any point.
And he’s the rare competition -- he’s not a little guy, he runs 4:37, his broad jump we talked about, his squat. So he’s not like one of these under-sized guys that can’t run for power when he needs to or break a tackle and those types of things.
I think he’s had something -- I don’t have it written down here but I remember at some point, either watching a tape or reading the stats, he’s had two or three games where he’s rushed for over 230 yards -- four of them? Thank you, four of them -- and he’s the only guy in the country that has done that.
We’ve got to make sure that knowing that they are a run-first-based offense, that we need to be prepared for those types of things.
I also know playing this type of opponent, and the speed that they have at wide out, as well, that we spend a lot of time talking about if I’m them with the speed that they have at wide out, as well, and some of the changes that they have had on the offensive line, do they max protect and take ten shots; say we are going to take ten shots down the field and we complete four of them, we’re in a really good position and they may do that. They may run the ball, run the ball, run the ball, max protect, take shots can really run to swing momentum and try to silence the crowd.
Q. Would Mustipher be close to green?HEAD COACH JAMES FRANKLIN: Yeah, he’s like hunter green.
Q. What are the challenges for a true freshman to contribute at that position? Obviously he has the physical tools but you don’t often see a lot of true freshmen come in and play a D-tackle.HEAD COACH JAMES FRANKLIN: He’s unusual, I don’t think there’s any doubt about it. I think he’s unusual.
He’s a high-energy, high-motor guy, which usually doesn’t happen with guys that are 6-4 and 300 pounds. I think that helps him. I think if you have a motor on the defensive line, that can solve a lot of issues for you, and he goes hard.
You talk to players during summer workouts, conditioning tests, he’s crushing it. He came in with that. I think it helps that his dad played college football. I think it helps that his brother is the captain of Notre Dame Football. He’s been around football his whole life. His dad played a big role in training him, not only in the weight room but also out on the field, so he came in pretty far along and came in with a really good mentality, as well.
Played a great high school program. I think that plays a factor into it. So I think it’s all those things. I think he came in physically ready to play from a size and from a strength and from a movement standpoint, and then also just him being around football as much as he’s been, he’s learned stuff.
It’s like hiring a coach’s kid to coach for you. It’s like recruiting a player who has grown up in a football family, parents were coaches or whatever it may be. They are learning football and they don’t even know they are learning football. They have just been around it their whole life, so he’s one of those guys.
Yeah, he’s definitely one of those guys -- six, we’re up to six, right? We’ve got one more to get for you.
Q. Going back to your days as a player even, first game of the season, after all the build-up, what are the emotions?HEAD COACH JAMES FRANKLIN: Yeah, I think obviously there’s excitement. I was getting a bunch of texts on Saturday night from guys, Antonio Shelton was blowing me up about how excited he is. And we’ve got to balance that.
We had a discussion in the staff meeting last week and a discussion with our team, as well, in a team meeting, about making sure that our players understand that those feelings are natural, because those feelings, really, are there to help you.
Those feelings, those butterfly feelings in your stomach; that nervous energy, that increased heart rate, that sweating. That’s your body telling you that you are ready, and we talked about that a lot as a staff and we talked about that a lot with the players.
It’s funny, based on how you perceive that; if you’re a player or just a person in general and you perceive that as I am ready, my body is reacting like this because this is something that is important to me, and this energy that I’m getting from my heart rate and from these things, is actually going to go to allow me to be the best football player I possibly can be; or an exam or whatever it may be, that’s a positive. There’s other people that can interpret that energy as a negative: I’m stressed; I’m not prepared; I have anxiety.
It’s really the same exact feeling. It’s all based on how you interpret that feeling and that energy. So talking to our players and our coaches about embracing that, embracing that and using that.
I think we’re in a good place, but I think there will be some of that, and there should be. I’ll be nervous. I get butterflies every time I walk into that stadium. I’ve been in there probably a hundred times now. You should feel that way because that’s your body telling you that you care and that’s your mind and your heart letting you know that you’re invested.
Q. Are you still trying to get Tommy Stevens the ball in multiple roles?HEAD COACH JAMES FRANKLIN: Yeah. Be similar to what you’ve seen in the past. As you guys know, I don’t like to get into schemes a whole lot because I don’t necessarily want to tell App State and our opponents what we’re doing. I know you’ve got to ask, but I try to avoid scheme answers and scheme questions.
Q. How much more value is there in a game like this with an opponent that can hit back?HEAD COACH JAMES FRANKLIN: I think, again, I’ll never approach it or say what you just said because I think we have all learned that on any given Sunday or any given Saturday or any given Friday night, if you don’t have your mind right, and you haven’t prepared the right way and you haven’t approached it the right way, you’re going to be in for a long day.
Yeah, I do think, being very strategic about what we do, non-conference is critical; is critical to our season, is critical to getting our guys ready and prepared for what the season may bring, is critical to put us in the best position to be part of Big 10 Championship conversations; is critical and strategic to give us the best chance to go further than that.
Yeah, I think it’s very, very important from a scheduling perspective, but the hard part is, how do you predict that when typically you’re scheduling five, six, seven, eight years out; a team that you scheduled six or eight years ago, was really strong and then by the time they get on your schedule, they are not, or vice versa.
That’s the challenging part of it and that’s where I think the best way to handle that is looking at historical data. You know, where has this program been over the last 50 years? There’s a good chance that they are going to be in that category.
There is times where there’s spikes and there’s times where there’s dips, but looking at that historical data and evidence, I think is important.
And then also, how does that factor in with your conference, your side of the conference and also who is rotating in from the other side of your conference that year. All those things have got to factor into that.