QA: As camp closes in, Franklin offers preview
Penn State's dramatic upset victory at Wisconsin on Thanksgiving weekend seems so long ago.
In the lifespan of a football program dating back to 1887, the eight months separating the end of the 2013 football season from the start of preseason camp have been some of its most transitional. From the departure of Bill O'Brien to the NFL's Houston Texans, only to be followed by the hiring of the effervescent James Franklin, all while still under the cloud of the NCAAs sanctions, the Nittany Lions have managed to emerge as one of the most talked about properties in college football.
Certainly, Franklin's energetic arrival in Happy Valley, and subsequent recruiting success, has had everything to do with the heightened anticipation leading into the 2014 season. With many real challenges still facing Franklin and the Nittany Lions though, what is to be expected in the coming weeks and months?
For Blue White Illustrated's preseason magazine - mailed to our print subscribers and on newsstands Friday - editor Nate Bauer caught up with Nittany Lion head coach Franklin in mid July to find out.
Check out their exclusive Q&A, below:
BWI: How close are you to feeling prepared for camp?
Franklin: "I think the first year I was a head coach, that was probably a challenge, but since then we have a model that we use and we tweak it each year a little bit, modify some things, learn from some things, grow. We've got a model that we believe in and I think that helps. You kind of go back and we don't just look at what we did last year, we kind of look at the evolution over the last three years of camps, and go from there. Obviously it's a little different because it's Penn State-specific, but the beliefs and the structure is similar."
BWI: How have the rules changes - two hours of film study per week - changed your expectations for the true freshmen that arrived this summer?
Franklin: "Not a whole lot. You look at it year one compared to year three, and this is year one now and I think that time allows you to maybe have a little bit more success in getting guys ready earlier on.
"Our philosophy is that hopefully by game five, the freshmen aren't freshmen anymore, the first time starters aren't starters anymore, they've evolved and they've grown. So I think that time that you're able to spend in the summer with them is helpful because maybe now game three they'll be further along or maybe by game one.
"Our approach is, we're going to be real aggressive during camp with our installations and some guys are able to pick it up and some guys aren't. I think the time you spend in the summer now will probably allow you to have a higher percentage of guys that are ready."
BWI: How much are you counting on that? You have only 33 kids with either senior or junior eligibility, leaving 87 with three or more years of eligibility.
Franklin: "Yeah, and how many of those 33 have played, too? I guess what I would say is, yeah, I'm hopeful and I'm excited with the new rule and I'm hoping that it's going to have an impact, but I'm not depending on it because I just don't live that way.
"I don't know how it's going to play out. All I do right now is I focus on the things that I know, and so far, reports that I'm getting from the guys is that the freshmen are doing extremely well and some of them have been impressive; guys that we thought would be.
"And, come the first two weeks of camp, we'll know. Guys can look great running around in their shorts or in the weight room, but playing football is different when the pads go on and you get hit in the mouth. So we'll just let them keep working hard and try to get them as prepared as we possibly can for camp and then get out there the first two weeks and see who legitimately is going to be able to help us early.
"We break it up into three categories. Who is going to be able to help us right away? Who probably is going to end up helping us before the year is out? And then, who just needs another year for maturity, whether it's physically, emotionally, mentally, whatever it is? So, the guys that you think are going to end up playing for you at some point, you might as well start getting them as many reps as you can early on and the guys that you know can help you from day one, you better have them involved. We figure that out usually within the first two weeks."
BWI: How much does that rely on the evaluation process to make those snap-judgement decisions in that two week span?
Franklin: "I wouldn't necessarily even say it's a snap-judgement because there's a lot of things that go into it. It's the recruiting process. It was getting to know him and his family, his high school coach and how mature he was and how he handled his business and how hard he works. We've been getting to know these kids, a lot of them, at least for over a year and in some cases two years, and now you actually get to work with them in person and they're either building on that or not.
"So it's not like it's just the two week picture. It's more of a complete picture just based on all the time you spent with them. And then the two weeks, it's usually a little bit more than that when you break into scout teams to start getting ready for your opponent, and that's usually when the decision has to be made. And again, you say two weeks, you have to remember those two weeks are really like a month because you're basically with them from seven in the morning until ten o'clock at night. It's football basically 24-hours a day. So, you get a pretty good picture of where you're at. And, like I said, the guys that are going to help you from day one, they kind of stand out. It's pretty obvious to everybody. It's that next group of guys that you really kind of have to figure out, where is this guy going to be four or five weeks from now?"
BWI: A lot of the summer boils down to contingency planning. If this happens to someone, what is our next move? How do you do that with such a young roster?
Franklin: "I would say that really starts during spring ball because you're starting to look at your roster and where your issues are and where your strengths are and how can you hide some of those weaknesses? How can you either scheme to help you with some of those weaknesses or how can you create flexibility within your roster, and then at that point, you already start thinking about the freshmen that are coming in.
"Are they going to have the ability to possibly come in and help you? A lot of that is position-specific. A lot of that is based on maturity - physical maturity or mental maturity - and a lot of those things. You may have an offensive lineman who mentally is able to do it but is 250 pounds. So to ask that kid to go out and compete is tough. It's all those factors. All those things have to align to allow the kid to be successful."
BWI: You're a perfectionist. Do you have to remind yourself of the realities of the challenges facing the program?
Franklin: "No, because I'm a pretty positive, excitable guy. I get excited about things and I see good things for us in the present, I see good things for us in the future. I understand our challenges.
"I do think the point you're making about getting everybody excited about the direction of Penn State football without setting up false expectations is my biggest challenge. But, what I'm kind of relying on is that I think we've got a pretty educated fan base and I think we've got pretty educated media.
"People understand. I think when you're dealing with fans and things like that, people are going to get excited and they're going to get caught up in the emotion, and I want them to do that. But I also know - like I told you - I read a lot and I kind of keep a pulse on what's going on and I think people generally understand. I think the excitement and the enthusiasm is about where the program is going and all the hard work that's being put into it and the consistent, positive message and those things. I think we can do some pretty cool things this year and I think we can do some pretty cool things in the future that people will be excited about. I don't worry about that a whole lot. I think what helps me - because I do read and I am aware of what's going on - is I think for the most part, people get it. People get it."
BWI: In your mind, specific to this season, what would constitute success?
Franklin: "I guess I would say two points. I would say from an academic perspective, I want us to have the best semester and the best year we've ever had, and we're on pace to do that. We did that in the spring. We're on pace to have a great summer. That's very, very important to me.
"I put that No. 1 up a lot of times and people always ask what that represents. Well, it represents a lot of things. We want to be No. 1 in academics, we want to be No. 1 in graduation rates, all those things.
"And then from a football perspective, I want at the end of every year, I want people to say, 'You know what? I'm comfortable with the direction of the program and I'm comfortable with the leadership.' Those are the things that I'm really concerned about, the direction of where we're going, the consistent messages and behaviors in our leadership and the same thing with our players, and then how we're doing in the classroom. I think if you do those things, the rest of the stuff will take care of itself. I believe that."
BWI: Did you envision the start you would have at Penn State as being exponentially important to the future?
Franklin: "I don't know. I didn't look at it that way. I felt like because of our familiarity with Pennsylvania and our familiarity with Penn State, and then the consistency on our staff, the fact that we were able to get here and be able to hit the ground running from the beginning from a football perspective, I thought we had a chance. I thought we had a really good plan and we had a really good system, and now we had the power of the Penn State branding and image and history and traditions to go along with that. I felt like we'd be able to do that. I wasn't putting a lot of pressure on myself or the program or the coaches to do that. I thought it would just naturally happen. I've been pleased with that."
BWI: And that did happen. You were able to get off to a great start.
Franklin: "I've been pleased. I think we've got a great staff, I think we have a really good group of kids that we're working with. I think there's an enthusiasm and an excitement in our fan base and in the community. I've heard that over and over from people. People reaching out, just talking about the excitement is back. That's exciting. I think the spring game was a really good example of that, and that momentum and that enthusiasm and that excitement is important.
"I think that's one of the things that makes Penn State special is that you're part of something bigger than just yourself. That's where the 107,000 strong is so important and so powerful because not only do you step in that stadium and it gives our players an advantage, but just being a part of that kind of community has a powerful impact on people. When you can show up and everybody is - it doesn't matter what your political views are, your religious views are, your backgrounds are socioeconomically, none of those things - it's just we're coming together to be a part of something bigger than just ourselves. That's a powerful deal. I think that's one of the reasons myself and the staff and the recruits and our current players are so excited about being here, because we're part of that family. And it's powerful."
BWI: Was that at all a leap of faith that it would come together before you took the job, or was that something you had a hunch would be at Penn State?
Franklin: "I think first of all, Penn State just in general I think has some of the most loyal fans out there. So I think there's a great foundation that's there. I knew we had lost some people for a number of reasons, but I felt like there was really a good foundation there. So I think you bring a staff in that's excited and enthusiastic about this opportunity and you put the kids in position to be successful in the classroom and on the football field, then you've got a chance to build on that. So I think there's a lot of things that we were able to do over our last three years that prepared us for a lot of the challenges that we have here. I believe that.
BWI: Personnel-wise, are there any players you might single out as being especially important to the overall team success this year?
Franklin: "I think on offense it's clearly the tight ends, because that's a position that, they're going to need to be able to impact us and have the ability to impact us in both the run and the passing game. A lot of people talk about the running backs we have, and I feel really good about our running backs, but most of the time, they're dependent on another position to be successful.
"And you can say that for a lot of position, whereas the tight ends, their blocking in the running game is really going to help our offensive line mature and grow. Especially if that can be a real strength, I think that can really help us. And, based on film study, that hasn't really been the case. They've been receivers. If we could get them to understand and figure out how to be dominant in the running game, that's going to make them so much more effective in the passing game as well. That's going to create much more big plays out of that position, and we need those guys and they have it in talent and they have the ability and they have the maturity to do that.
"I would say that position from top to bottom is critical, because they're going to allow the running backs to be successful, they're going to allow Hack to be successful, they're going to allow the wide receivers not to be double-teamed on the outside. They're going to have a huge factor in this season in my opinion.
"Then, on the defensive side of the ball, I'd say the D-line. Again, that's another position where I think we have talent and depth and if they can be dominant up front, once again, they're going to be able to impact the passing game by pressuring the quarterback and being able to get off blocks and make plays in the running game. If you do that, now that allows the linebackers to mature and I feel pretty good about our back end, the secondary.
"A guy that I don't think is getting enough love right now is Adrian Amos. We're pretty excited about him and his ability, and I could name a lot of guys, but for whatever reason, that's a guy that I think should be getting a little bit more love and attention, because we think he has a chance to be special."