It’s Land Grant Trophy week. James Franklin led an innerwebs press conference. Below is a transcription, courtesy of GoPSUSports, of what James had to say.
Opening Statement: Like always, I want to thank you guys for getting on. Hoping everyone’s families are healthy and safe. Reviewing the Rutgers game. Offensive Player of the Week was Michal Menet, defense was Jaquan Brisker and on special teams was Jake Pinegar. I think the overall factors in that game were starting fast, obviously going 1-0. I thought we were tough and physical against a team that I think is tough and physical. We did that on both fronts, our O-Line and D-Line, really linebackers, tight ends and safeties. A lot of guys were really physical. I thought some of our defensive statistics were pretty impressive, 45 percent of gains went for one yard or less and 37 percent went for zero or negative yards. I thought the backed-up drive on the 1 yard-line that went 11 plays for 89 yards, I thought that was a huge drive in the game. Defensively, in the first half, two turnovers on fourth down stops, four three-and-outs and a total of 43 yards. Obviously, we’re proud of being part of the 900th win in program history and being part of that 900-plus club that Penn State is a part of. Opportunities for growth, we have to do a better job with the ball. We had done a really good job of protecting the football, but that showed up again on Saturday with a fumble and a pass that was high that led to a tipped-ball into an interception. We’ve got to eliminate the pre-snap penalties. But overall, again, since the first game of the year, we’ve been really good from a penalty-standpoint which is something we’ve done a good job with over seven years. We’ve got to be better with details and execution in the passing game. When it comes to Michigan State, got a lot of respect for Mel Tucker and his career over the years. Obviously his first year at Michigan State. I’ve known Mel. Before that, actually a few years ago, Mel and Alabama came and visited, their defensive staff came and visited, with our staff and Mel was part of that trip. Jay Johnson, offensive coordinator, has done a nice job. We have a lot of respect for their offensive line and wide receivers. Their receivers, No. 5 [Jayden Reed] and No. 8 Jalen Nailor. Their offensive line and their defensive live are massive. Big, strong and physical. Their defensive coordinator, Scottie Hazleton. The thing that really jumps out is their D-tackles. I think their four D-tackles on the two deep are 345 pounds, 340 pounds, 335 pounds and 310 pounds. So, they are big and physical. Impressed with their cornerback, No. 29 Shakur Brown and linebacker, No. 34 Antjuan Simmons, who seems like he’s been playing there forever. Then, D-tackle Naquan Jones and D-End Jacub Panasiuk. Impressed with those guys. Ross Els, their special teams coordinator, does a good job and those same receivers show up on special teams. Q: This senior class has experienced highs, as a championship team, and the lows with playing during the pandemic. What are their contributions to the program and is there anything you can learn from their resilience?A: I think the way you described it is a good one. You’re talking about a group of guys that were part of a Big Ten Championship, some of them. I don’t think there’s been any other program in the league in that period of time besides us and Ohio State that have won a Big Ten Championship. Talking about a group that won a Fiesta Bowl Championship and a Cotton Bowl Championship. Talking about a group of guys that you can make the argument, maybe the most successful four-year stretch at Penn State since joining the Big Ten. Those guys have been a big part of that, whether it was the developmental squad, the scout team giving looks to the offense and defense, whether that was on special teams, whether that was on offense or defense as backup roles or starters. Really, since this season has started, the things I’ve seen and heard in the locker room before games and after games has been really good. You know, during challenging times, I think about the seniors and that type of experience they’re having as seniors and I sympathize with that. You know, no fans at games, no parents before games. Even Senior Day is going to be different. But I also think about the freshmen. T least the seniors can lean on those experiences that you mentioned. I think about the freshmen and sophomores or the second-year players, a good percentage of their Penn State experience has been these unusual circumstances. So, I’m proud of those guys. You know, they’ve been there from the beginning. They committed to Penn State during a time where the conversations that I was having with players was probably very different than maybe any college football coach in the country. Strange conversations that we had to have. So, I’m proud of those guys and there’s a lot of different stories when I look at the list, how they came here and what they’ve done over their careers. Q: How have you seen Shaka Toney grow as a leader this season? What has he done? How has he kept everybody focused together?A: He’s changed dramatically, physically, since we recruited him as a 195-pound defensive end out of Imhotep Charter High School in Philadelphia. We originally had him committed as a linebacker and then we has adamant that he wanted to play defensive end and we were open to that. He’s had a really good career from that perspective and I think he’s got a bright future. I think during the season, you know, his message in the locker room with our guys and with our team, before games and after games, after success and after setbacks, has been really strong. Shaka has got strong opinions and beliefs and he’s really handled those things the right way, for the season. When I think about Shaka, I think about his whole family. I remember the recruiting trip was shocking. It was probably 15 or 16 family members in his house and I remember his niece recording a video with me. He’s got an unbelievably supportive family. They’re there at all the games that they could be at. They’re really supportive of him, and really, Penn State overall. I’m just thankful and appreciative. I’ve learned a lot from Shaka. I hope Shaka has learned a lot from being apart of this program as well. It’s really important to me that the seniors, we do everything we possibly can, starting with today’s practice, to send them out in the right way. Again, you know, you look back at the entire season and there’s a lot of things and experiences tat we would have liked to have gone differently, some that were in our control and some that were not. So, being able to try to send these guys out in the right way, with at least these last two games that we have. Q: You have always done a nice job with the pregame ceremony for Senior Day. Do you have any idea how you’re going to handle that? Is there any chance of any of these guys coming back?A: Senior Day is something that’s always meant a lot to me and the parents. You know, for our players, it will be different with what we can’t have. We can’t have the players and parents on the field like we normally do. Usually the cheerleaders form line and we honor the cheerleaders as well as the managers. The fans typically come early and show their appreciation and support for them. You know, it’s pretty cool. I would ask, we’ve had a number of fans that have been awesome the last couple weeks, I think it’s had a real difference for our team, with a bunch of fans out at the airport, along the road, on the way to away games. Last week, they were not far from the buses when we first pulled out of Lasch, with signs. You know, if those fans plan on doing that again this week, I would love for them maybe to all do something for the seniors, maybe divvy up all the seniors and do something, because I’d like for it to be special for them, because there’s not a whole lot we can do in the stadium that a lot of these guys have waited years to do. So, we’ll still call out their names and bring them out on the field. You know, at Penn State, we’re allowed to have the parents there, but they have to be in the stands. So, we’re going to try to make it the best we possibly can. Then to your point, you know, there’s a lot of conversations that was always have at the end of seasons with the young men and their families about their futures. Obviously, this year with a lot of the things that are going on and some of the decisions the NCAA made, and that the Big Ten made, make those conversations a little bit different. You know, this season has had an impact on that as well. So, there’s some conversations that we are going to need to have. I’ve also encouraged our assistants to start having these conversations on Thursday and Friday, not just about their futures, but just in general, making sure that we’re talking to our guys enough, during a time where these conversations are probably more valuable than ever. They’re always important, but right now, more than ever. Q: What are the challenges in trying to close a recruiting class while still in game preparation? How do you balance those conversations, number-wise, with the idea that some guys could come back?A: We’ve had really good conversations and those guys have been great the whole time. I think I’ve mentioned, somebody asked me a similar question a week or two ago, and I just talked about our transparency. We just kind of let them know what’s going on and how we see their futures. I think there’s also been something that has been appreciated by our parents, by our recruits and the parents of our recruits is, our ability to keep our team and our program healthy. Again, I know fans what their focus is, but that was always going to be a balance this year is trying to balance those two things. I think, in some ways, that has helped us overcome some of the adversity that we’ve had, not only in our team, but also in recruiting, when it comes to some of the numbers as they are the way the NCAA did it this year. If the seniors come back, they don’t count against you. So that would allow you to go over your 85. But, it’s this is a year that it’s very, very challenging and difficult to predict, with all of that. So, we’ll see. We’ll see how it plays out, but we’ve known this was always going to be a small class for us. With a lot of the unknowing out there, it allows us to continue that approach and maybe be a little conservative. Then also the opportunity to maybe bring some guys in as grad transfers and other things like that, that other programs have done. Q: What was the impact of having Devyn [Ford] back with the team on Saturday? Both from his on-field production and from an emotional standpoint with everyone supporting him as he deals with a death in the family?A: I don’t know how much of the specifics that he got into with you guys, and out of respect, I won’t do that. But yeah, there’s Devyn’s story and how the team has been so supportive of him and how Devyn has handled this, how Coach [Ja’Juan] Seider has handled this and how we’ve tried to be supportive. I had a conversation with his dad and stepmom last week, which I try to do that as much as I can. I don’t want to ever overstep by bounds, you know, I always ask head of time. But we had multiple things like that, throughout the season. You know, this pandemic has created a lot of other health issues in people’s families behind the scenes, whether it’s grandparents, whether it’s moms and dads, whether it’s siblings, it’s created a lot of things. Again, a lot of these families and all these young men are having to do this on their own without the normal support that they normally would be able to get or provide. The team has been really good about it. But, all the way back to the beginning of the season, with us losing players, there’s been a lot of emotional swings that the team has had to handle, you know in a lot of ways, I’m really proud of them. Q: Over the last four weeks, Tariq Castro-Fields has dressed, I think you said it was a medical issue. How frustrating has it been for your staff and Tariq? How have you seen the second-year cornerbacks take a step?A: I’ll start with those guys. You know, it’s been really cool to see those guys really step up and take on a much more significant role on the team and really, in the last couple weeks, have really done a nice job. Obviously, Joey [Porter Jr.] got a lot of attention last week. But, you know, Marquis [Wilson] has really done some good things. [Daequan] Hardy has made some big plays. You can make the argument that in the last couple weeks, he’s had two sacks. Obviously, we had that one play where it ended up not being a sack and strip, fumble, and that who interesting sideline discussion and overturn with the batted-ball play. But, he’s done some really good things. Getting [Keaton] Ellis back and really getting Keaton’s ability to fight through some of injuries that he’s had during the year was impressive. And there are opportunities for growth. So, I think that’s a unit that we’re excited about their future and we’re going to need them to step up and continue to grow. We would love to have Tariq back. It’s literally, you know, each week. He’s been great in meetings. His leadership has been phenomenal. I think, in some ways, sitting back and coaching and watching and leading, he’s learned a lot about football and he’s learned a lot about our team. I think he’s learned a lot about himself. You know, the conversations that I’ve had with Terry [Smith] this week, we think there’s a very good chance we’re going to have Tariq this game. It’s similar to what it’s been. It’ll depend how the week goes. Then, also what our trainers and doctors and Tariq feel late in the week and on game day. I know talking to Terry earlier this week, he felt like, we’re closer to actually getting it done, which would be a huge boost to our team. Q: You’ve alluded to the sacrifices you, your staff and your team have made. Are there one or two you can share with us? Have those sacrifices been worth it to play this season?A: I guess, right now, in the heat of it all, it’s hard to answer that. You know, because to me, I’m not just looking at it from football, looking at the whole picture. Obviously, when all these decisions were made, it was hard to predict how this was going to play out. I mean, you look at the Big Ten in general, you look at the records in the Big Ten, you know, there’s been a few programs that have been able to do it. But, you know, I don’t know if there’s every been a year in the Big Ten like this, from a competitive standpoint, you know, pretty much across the board. But it’s hard to predict, and to be honest with you, I think we’re in a position where it’s still hard to predict what the future holds. When it this going to end? When it this going to change? How are we going to get back to normal? In terms of sharing some of those stories, to me that’s up to the individuals when you guys talk to them. I know Devyn shared some of that with you guys. I’m very sensitive, like I would be with you. I don’t give out people’s phone numbers without asking people first. I can speak for myself and I could speak for the things that we’ve already talked about with the staff and the team. You know, really the burden and weight that Wayne Sebastianelli and Dr. Greg Billy and Andy Mutnan and all our trainers, the burden they have felt. Because their responsibility is to keep everybody safe and healthy, no matter what. Then my responsibility is to reinforce what they’re telling me and also to try to find a way to play football within those parameters. So, it’s been tough. I will tell you this, I can’t tell you what I would do for a hug from my wife and daughters. I can’t express to you. I want us to practice well today and play well on Saturday, but there’s also going to be a point where, when we get to the end of the season, for me and our players and our staff, everybody, I’m very sensitive to it. How can we get everybody to their families in a safe way and let them get some time before we come back to school and get back going on our offseason and trying to get back to some normalcy. I think one of the big things for me is, not only getting down to see my family, but how can I get my family back here at some point. How could they come back and do that and keep my daughter safe without really having anywhere near here that can handle sickle cell? Those are my personal experiences, but as you can imagine, there’s probably 150 of those stories in our program and team. Again, I don’t want this to be about me, but I also don’t want to share all these personal stories. Q: Brenton [Strange] and Theo [Johnson] seem to be blocking with a great amount of enthusiasm. How important have the past couple weeks been for them? How important will they be for what the tight end room looks like next year?A: I think Coach [Tyler] Bowen has done a really nice job of recruiting and developing that position. We’re also excited about Tyler Warren. He’s doing some good things. We want obviously get those guys involved and continue to advance in the throwing game. We’ve got to do a better job there, no doubt about that. But they had done a really good job. I think you’re exactly right. They have done a really good job of being physical with defensive ends and linebackers, with doing it in situations where everybody in the stadium, on a bad weather day, or in a four-minute offense, everybody knows we’re going to run the ball. They’re sticking their nose in there and running their feet and really, two fairly young players. That’s been really important to us. I’m proud of those guys. [Zach] Kuntz continues to get better and he’s doing some really good things. I had a good conversation with him last week, as well, because I think think he has so much room for growth and potential. It’s a good group. Tyler has done a good job of recruiting them. We’ve done a good job of developing them. They’ve got a good mentality and approach. I think that goes back to one of the stories that we were talking about before is, you know, some of these like Theo, coming from Canada, how do we handle that with the borders being closed? That’s an example of all these different stories that we have, that we’re trying to navigate with these kids of how we’re gonna solve some of these challenges. Q: When you were 0-5, you said you wanted these guys to remember what it felt like to win and remember the past four years when you guys did have a lot of success. In what ways have they done that these past two weeks? What did it take for your guys to remember what those previous seasons felt like? How did the seniors lead that charge?A: I think, for really six years, we had found ways to win in all different ways. Whether they were blowouts, whether they were making critical plays at critical times, whether it was a defensive game that the defensive side gave us a chance to win or the offense had to score points or special teams made a big play, we just, we found ways to win the majority of the time over those six years. Early in the season, we weren’t doing those things. We were doing the opposite. We were doing the things that get you beat with the turnovers and penalties. So, we continue to talk about it, emphasize it, like we always do. But we just started to do a better job of when we turn the ball over, we were able to get a turnover on defense. It’s about emphasizing winning football and what that means and the importance of it and everybody buying into it, understanding it. Obviously when you go to Michigan and you get a win, you know, during a challenging time and a place that’s been hard to win, then you’ve got a chance to build on that. For us, that’s what I’m trying to do and trying to get the coaches to do it, the team to do and everybody to do is, we don’t need to be on top of a mountain or at the end of the ride. We just need to take a step. We’ve just got to keep taking positive steps in the right direction and stay very present. That’s how we build it and getting everybody to understand that, as well. The veterans have been a big part of that since the season started, is helping everybody kind of understand that message. I would say that Shaka has been very vocal. I’d say Lamont [Wade] has been very vocal with those guys in the locker room after games. But there’s been a number of guys, Michal Menet, I could go on and on with these guys that have really stepped up and then you’ve got guys like Isaac Lutz that have done it with their play. Isaac doesn’t say a whole lot, but he’s made some big plays for us over the last couple weeks. Antonio Shelton has been very vocal. So, you know, this is medicine that we don’t want to take, but we’re going to learn from it and we’re going to grow from it. I am determined that we’ll be better because of it. Q: Wanted to get your thoughts in regards to a potential bowl game. With everybody making sacrifices, is there any thought to just getting the season over with as opposed to extending things with everybody hanging around for another couple of weeks?A: I think when the Big Ten at the very beginning made some of the decisions they made and came up with the plan, I don’t think anybody kind of visualized this. That it was going to be this and the amount of time these players have been away from their families. I think about some of the interviews I’ve seen with the NBA players when they came out of the bubble and those types of things. You’re talking about pros and adults to, you know, older young men. I think right now, we haven’t really discussed those things. Every day, people come into my office and tell me a game that’s been canceled or an NFL game that’s been moved to a Tuesday night or a wide receiver playing quarterback in the NFL. I mean, things like that, that none of us cold have imagined and have gone on this year in the NFL, college and high school. You know, we’ve got recruits that haven’t played at all during their senior years. We’ve got recruits that played half the year and got shut down. It’s just been a very bizarre year. It’s hard to sit here and say you could have imagined it. Don’t know if I’ve said to you guys before, driving up to these stadiums, driving up to The Big House and driving up to Rutgers and nobody on the road, nobody in the parking lot. I do my walk with officer Monica before the game and there’s nobody in there. We’re waving and saying thank you to cardboard cutouts. It’s just strange, you know. We haven’t talked about anything else. Bowl games keep getting canceled. Every other day, you see a bowl game getting canceled. There’s no bowl requirements in terms of the number of wins this year. So, it’s just, it’s hard to say to predict, it’s hard to know. For us, we’re just trying to control the things that we do know right now, which is today, which is Michigan State on Saturday and then knowing that there’s going to be a game after that. To be honest with you, we don’t even know that. It hasn’t even been clearly defined from the Big Ten what that last week is going to look like. I think the other thing is, when that was decided, I don’t know if everybody kind of thought that the season was going to be like this. The issue is, I think you know, the conference and then the schools all made commitments that deal with TV and a number of games that we said we were going to play and all those types of things. That has an impact on all of it. So, we’ll see how it all plays out. But I’m focused on trying to have the best Tuesday practice we can have and put our guys in a position to play a tough, physical Michigan State game here on Saturday and try to send these seniors out the right way. Q: Not to overlook Michigan State, but what are the logistics of week nine. What do you know about it right now? How do you try and prepare when you don’t know the opponent and you’ve got the early signing period mixed in there? How do you balance that?A: I would assume we’re going to hear more about week nine here really soon, if not later this week. I would think right after the game, we’ll have an idea, I would hope. But it really just hasn’t been clearly defined yet. Obviously, we had the model before the season started, but we’ve also heard stuff about maybe the Big Ten changing the model based on games being canceled and not meeting certain thresholds and games that people want to be played based on that game has been played for 90-something years consecutively and they want to play it. There’s still a lot of things out there that we’re not completely sure on, but again, it is what it is and we’ll deal with it the best we can. Back to the early signing period, that’s a challenge. We’ve got to try to make it as special as we possibly can, for those young men and their families and their high school coaches. But we’ve got to do it on a Wednesday, during a game week, which Wednesday’s a huge workday for us. We usually have a staff meeting at 7 a.m. and we’re doing football all day to get ready for that practice and finish the game plans. Now, you’re trying to do that on a day that’s usually dominated on celebrating young men and their families’ futures. We’re gonna do the best we possibly can to serve those two groups. I think a lot of it will be me and the recruiting staff, allowing the offensive, defensive and special teams staffs to spend most of their day on football as normal as they would. But now, like when I do my call with the family and a young man at a certain position, we’ll just go grab that coach with the recruiting staff for 15 minutes and then they can get back. I think that’s how we’re going to do it as much as we can. It’s just a fine line because we want to celebrate those young men and the choice and decision that they’ve made. But we also have a responsibility to have a great Wednesday practice. We’re going to have to get it done. Q: Can you assess Will Levis’ development as a passer? How much are you guys working on that part of his game?A: I think in general, we’ve got to be bettering in the passing game and we’ve got to be able to push the ball down the field. We’ve got to be more efficient and more explosive in the passing game. I think to your point, and I brought it up the last couple weeks, we’ve got to mix the pass in with Will. Will’s doing a really good job in helping us in short yardage situations or four-minute offense, which the reality is that’s a big part of how we wanted to use him. But we also want to be able to mix some of those other things in there, because he’s shown that he can do it and he deserves it. Also, I think it will make us more explosive and make us more efficient, you know, keep people a little bit off-balance and be a little bit less predictable. He’s done a nice job and h’s earned that. He’s deserved that. We need to do that. We’re gonna need both of those guys. Q: Around the country, we’ve seen teams lose and then a bunch of players opt out. That hasn’t happened to you guys. Why have you been able to stay together as a program?A: I think a few weeks ago, somebody asked me about culture. That was more associated with the lack of success this season and I think at that time, I said, well, you can’t just throw the culture stuff around when things are going well. You’ve got to throw the culture around, too, when you’re having challenges. I do think that’s a pretty good example, that although we haven’t had the success on the field this year that we want, and there’s a lot of reasons I could sit here and name why, and some people would say, you know, that they’re excuses. And I could sit here and do that. But, I also think to your point, there’s been some really good examples of this team sticking together and this team battling back at a time where other programs aren’t. Guys are tapping out or opting out and those types of things. Our guys haven’t done that. They’ve continued to battle. I think that’s a good sign about who our program is and what we’ve built here. Also think it’s going to be the same things that we’re going to use to work through this and get back to have the success that we’ve had the last four years before. I think that’s really important. I think that’s something that I know, I’m going to sit down with the team, hopefully before they all leave. We’re going to do it by position, but hopefully as a team as well. That’s what we’re going to do to build this thing. I think on January 19, I think is the date that we start the Spring semester. What does the Spring semester look like yet? I’m not completely sure. But those are the things that I think, the conversations I’m going to have with the players, with the staff, with the administration, that I’m going to have with everybody to help us get back to the normal Penn State that people expect. I do think your point is a good one. There’s been some cracks that have been exposed through this pandemic, but there’s also been tremendous resiliency. I know this sounds strange, and I don’t want this to be misinterpreted, but I’m also proud of how we have battled through a lot of adversity and a lot of challenges.