For most of the first full week of James Franklin's Penn State Coaches Caravan journey, the Nittany Lions' new head coach has engaged in an extended getting-to-know-you interaction with both media and the fans.
Thursday afternoon in Pittsburgh, the final stop before heading back to State College tonight, Franklin yet again provided insight to the operation he brings to the Penn State football program. This time, though, the focus was on some of the actual guts of how he likes to prepare for success on the field game in and game out.
Asked about how his game plans originate, Franklin went in depth regarding the extensive groundwork lain through the summer months and how it all comes to fruition - while simultaneously evolving - by the time the fall rolls around.
Stating that the opponents on Penn State's schedule at the beginning of the season get four or five game breakdowns based on the season, with inverse proportions as the season progresses to include games from the current year, Franklin detailed the many different tools at his disposal.
"So, for UCF, we can get four games broken down right now. Typically it's the last four games, but if one of those games isn't a really good fit - it's Navy, for example - we're not going to break that game down. We'll go back to the next game that is maybe is a better fit from an offensive and defensive perspective so the film makes sense for us," Franklin said. "Our second game of the year, we'll do a three game breakdown, knowing that we're going to break down the first game of the year and include it. The third game it will be a two game breakdown, knowing we're going to break down the first two games. And then a one game breakdown."
Additionally, Franklin explained, the Nittany Lions' staff goes beyond the actual game film and will customize its preparation based on its own in-game philosophies.
"We'll do a four game breakdown, but say we don't have enough clips of the formation trips, so we'll go to other games to get as many examples of that formation or down and distance. It might be goalline. We didn't get enough goalline from that four game breakdown. There was no goalline. All the touchdowns were scored from outside the 30. So we'll go to other games and get those areas so we have enough film, because it's hard to predict what somebody is going to do if you don't have enough data," he said. "So that's what you're trying to do. You're trying to create enough data so you can really see, is there tendencies? Is there tendencies with what they're trying to do? And that's what you're trying to do. You're trying to predict how they're going to play you.
"That's why going back and watching the year before you play people is valuable. Even for matching up personnel. So for us, we go back and watch the Central Florida game from last year and it's probably not great from an exact scheme standpoint, but watching how our personnel matched up against each other is valuable for us as well."
In other words, and in a development that shouldn't come as much of a surprise considering the acute and intricate nature of Franklin's extensive preparations, the Nittany Lions' new head coach very much looks at the game as a science.
"Grinding" on the game plan Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, Franklin said he tries to have everything finished on Wednesday, breaking the game down into segments, situational tendencies and the like.
"When you get your third down call sheet, at the top of that third down call sheet it's, 'This is their top coverage. This is their top blitz. This is their top front.' Or whatever it may be. Your game plan was based off of that," he said. "So what you're trying to do is, you're charting all this early in the game and you're saying, are they playing how we predicted them to play? Because some people, they're going to go in the game and say, 'We're going to try to be completely different than we've been,' which, sometimes works out well, a lot of times backfires because you have tendencies because you're good at something. So if you kind of try to break the tendency, then you're probably running things you're not as good at. So, there's a fine line in that."
Asked about his own avoidance of the practice he'd just warned about, Franklin provided some clues as to what could be coming for the Nittany Lions offensively in the immediate and distant future.
Detailing the different methods available for sticking with what works while keeping a defense off balance, the strategies in his head played out like an internal chess match via verbal conversation.
"What you try to do is, say you've got your normal game plan. You try to have things that complement. That's how you try to break tendencies is you use your tendencies against people," he said. "So, if you've got a tendency to run the ball out of a certain formation, well not only are you going to run the ball out of that certain formation because it's been good to you, but you better have a playaction pass off of that. Or, maybe you want to get in that formation but you don't want to show them that formation, so you shift in motion to get to that formation.
"So it's not that they just line up and as soon as they see this formation, Oh, they're probably running this play. You try to disguise it as much as you possibly can. That's where tempo helps as well, because if you can get set and snap the ball, they don't have as much time to think about what you're doing based on their film studies and things like that. Probabilities, tendencies, things like that."