Penn State Football Summer Interview: Head coach James Franklin
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Penn State Football Summer Interview: James Franklin

With Penn State head football coach James Franklin set to meet with reporters later this week at Big Ten Media Days in Indianapolis, we're sharing our exclusive one-on-one interview conducted earlier this summer. 

Admittedly, Penn State's 2020 season did not go as head coach James Franklin had ever intended.

Forced into a litany of adjustments, the Nittany Lions spent the COVID-19 year in a constant state of transition, making up for severe protocols, critical personnel losses, and early season adversity. Only once the program had bottomed out with an 0-5 record through its first five weeks did the Nittany Lions rebound to finish with a four-game run of wins before the offseason mercifully arrived.

Having had the opportunity to shake off the disappointment of 2020 and finally returning to some semblance of normalcy in the program's day-to-day operation concurrent to the pandemic's waning, what's next for the Nittany Lions?

Blue White Illustrated editor Nate Bauer sat down for an interview with Franklin in June. Their conversation is presented here, lightly edited for space and clarity:

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Penn State Nittany Lions Football head coach James Franklin
Penn State head coach James Franklin is set to begin his eighth season with the Nittany Lions. (Steve Manuel/BWI)

BWI: Were there any unintended benefits of everything that happened last year?

"The way I've been talking about it and looking at it is, I think a lot of people are talking about how they can't wait to get back to normal. And what we've talked about is, there should be, and there were, things that we learned from going through that.

"So what did we learn from that experience? What are we going to continue to do, even after the pandemic, and add to our game? What did we learn personally? What did we learn professionally? What did we learn as an organization? What did we learn as individuals in our roles, and kind of grow from it?

"I'm not somebody that I think takes things for granted. But I will say that it was a tremendous reminder of just how blessed we are, in so many ways, and that so many things that we're used to were taken away from us. So I think in a lot of ways, it's probably a good reset for a lot of people in not taking things for granted and being appreciative of what you have and who you are, and who you're with.

"But even just things like Zoom. Why were we not taking advantage of this before? It makes no sense. Where you didn't connect with somebody because it wasn't worth driving or flying out to see them, and you just didn't do it because of that, or you're on vacation and I'm worried about the players back in State College. It distracts you.

"People are gonna say when you're on vacation, you need to be on vacation. But if I'm on vacation and I'm worried about what's going on in State College, then you're not as connected as you should be with your family when you're with them. Where if I can get on a call and just do a 10-minute team meeting on a Sunday night and just check in with the guys and make sure everybody's doing okay and give them a message. Now I feel like after that call's over, I can spend the next couple of days with my family and be more locked into them.

"I think there are some real balances to it. I also think recruiting nationally, a kid that's never seen Penn State, we have the ability to show them Penn State now in a virtual way that we could have been doing before. A lot of times it was, 'Is that kid willing to fly out unofficially and check the place out or not?'"

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BWI: You have added six new full-time assistants in the past two offseason. Where is the coaching staff in its transition?

"I think it's hard to say, because right now, you've got to be careful because you're comparing everything to last year, and I don't know if that's fair or right to do. I brought the Leadership Council in the other day and I talked to them and they think we're in this unbelievable place right now, which I feel good about, and I'm glad they feel that way. But I said, 'Just make sure that we're comparing the lifting, the meeting, the workouts - don't compare them to last year, because that's not the standard. You better be comparing them to the 11-win seasons, the 10-win season. You need to be comparing it to that'.

"I think that was a good message for them to hear and for all of us to hear because, although I do think we're in a good spot, last year was just so challenging from so many different perspectives. We just got to make sure that that's not the standard that we're comparing to.

"Some of the changes that happened last year, in some of their defense, there are aspects of it that were outside of their control and not fair in some ways. But life isn't always fair. But the fact that you have a new offensive coordinator and there are some things that we need to get installed in spring ball to lay a foundation, and you have no spring ball.

"My thing is, what you'd like the NCAA to do with most things, which is kind of the NCAA and the college football I grew up with, is let's try to make this as much of a level playing field as we possibly can so that everybody has an opportunity. If you lost spring ball, then you should have gained those 15 practices in summer camp. For one team across the country, or even specifically in the Big Ten, to get nine spring ball practices and we get zero, another team to get 15 and we get zero, that makes it really challenging.

"But there's less of that right now in college athletics. It used to be all about, how do we level the playing field as much as we possibly can so there are not built-in advantages or disadvantages? So, in some of the coaches' defense, they were put in a really tough spot."

RELATED: Influx of energy, enthusiasm accompanying Yurcich's Penn State arrival

Penn State Nittany Lions Football offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich
Offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich is one of Penn State football's six new assistant coaches hired in the past two years. (Mark Selders/BWI)

BWI: Where do you feel Sean Clifford is at in his headspace and development?

"I try to look at the big picture, and I know this is a profession and this is a game based on not only production but what have you done lately. You could be all everything, as a player, as a coach, whatever it is, and if the last game or the last season wasn't up to standard, then that's how people view you.

"That's fair, to a degree, but I also know that two years ago we won 11 games with Sean Clifford and won the Cotton Bowl. There were a lot of people talking before the season started that not only was he maybe one of the top two quarterbacks in the Big Ten, but also one of the top quarterbacks in the country. That's still my guy. That's still my Sean.

"I think he's had a really good summer. He prepares like crazy. He works like crazy. When I had my end-of-the-year meetings and I asked the team who are the hardest workers on the team, I asked the guys who are the best leaders on the team, his name comes up consistently.

"So I think he's gonna have a big year for us, and I'm very proud of him, and I think although last year was extremely painful for him, I think there's value and growth that's going to come from that, especially when it comes to some of the toughness aspects. The emotional toughness that comes from going through a year like that, the mental toughness that comes from going through a year like that, especially when you had so many people patting you on the back the year before. And to be honest with you, me and him bond over things like that because the head coach and quarterback are always gonna feel it more than anybody."

BWI: Did you see a tipping point with the offensive line's acclimation to Phil Trautwein?

"I'm not sure about that, but what I will say is, it is very apparent to me that Phil is a relational guy. His players really like him and respect him. You can be successful being respected only. You can be successful being liked only. But when you're liked and respected, it's a really good combination, and obviously, his experience in college, winning two national championships, his experience of being able to make it to the NFL and stay in the NFL as a free agent, probably not based on talent - and I don't mean that as a knock, I don't want that to come off the wrong way - but based on that he was a technician and he was a student of the game. There's a lot of value that translates to our players from that.

"I also like the tree that he's come up under of O-line coaches. I think they do it the right way, so I think that helps. Although he's a young guy, he's got pretty good experience and he's come up under the right people. I just think the O-line, we're in a really good place culturally. Their buy-in, their work ethic, all those types of things. So I like what Phil's doing with our offensive line.

"And the other thing, just talking to our guys, I was down in the weight room the other day, and Rasheed Walker, he's just in such a good place. And talking to the strength staff, and talking to the players, the way he's working, the way he's leading, he and Mike Miranda are kind of the two guys that are leading that unit in a really positive, aggressive way right now."

RELATED: Emboldened by Trautwein's influence, Walker sets high expectations for '21

BWI: What inhibited turnover generation in the secondary last year, and do you feel like the pieces are in place to improve that this season?

"I put sacks in there as well, when you're not scoring a lot of points, or when you're not ahead. When you're ahead and scoring a lot of points, and people feel the pressure that they have to keep up with you, now they throw the ball more, which creates more sacks. They throw the ball more, which creates more opportunities for interceptions. I think those things go hand in hand, and some of those interceptions are based off of pressure, and then some of those interceptions are just making sure that our guys are prepared.

"When an opportunity comes, you got to capitalize on it. So whether that's being on the Jugs machine all offseason, whether that's out doing fieldwork, those are just so valuable, game-changing plays, statistical plays from a defensive perspective, that when they happen, you got to make them.

"I think back to my first couple of years here, all the way back to my time at Vanderbilt. I think about plays where at the end of the game, you got a chance where the ball was thrown to you. I got two very specific ones here at Penn State that I think of that the ball was thrown to us and we catch it and the game's over. Then a few plays later, we give up a touchdown pass and lose, and there are two more wins that we really should have. I'm not talking about a tough interception. I'm talking about, the game's over. Those two games really stand out in my mind.

"So it's just making sure that the defensive personnel understands when you have an opportunity to get a turnover or a fumble, the ball is on the ground, are all 11 people running to the ball? So when the ball is on the ground, somebody is in position.

"You think about the Grant Haley play against Ohio State. You always have a rush side on a kick block, whether it's a field goal or whatever it is, and then on the other side, you have someone that literally is not going to block the kick. They're there to scoop and score. It's a little small deal, but if Grant Haley doesn't do his job, which is to keep contain and be in position for scoop and score, he doesn't make the play.

"And as we both know, that was the fastest kicker in the country, because Grant Haley could run. But my point is, if Grant is not in a perfect position, he probably doesn't score there. It's about examples of everybody doing their job so that when the opportunity presents itself, you can take advantage of it."

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