Franklin has shown he’s willing to make changes
As he prepares for his sixth — that’s right, sixth — season at Penn State, James Franklin has clearly proven he’s willing to make changes.
When the performance of one of his positions has flopped, he holds his coaching staff accountable.
We saw that in 2015 with offensive coordinator John Donovan, and Joe Moorhead was brought in.
We saw it last year, and after the receiving corps collectively showed hands more suited for symbols in the Blue Band, position coach David Corley was promptly dismissed.
And we think we also saw it in 2018 when special teams coach Phil Galiano, whose units did not perform well and appeared disorganized, was given enough time to find another landing spot, in this case the New Orleans Saints.
Joe Paterno almost never fired an assistant coach, but this is a new day. You can’t pay assistants what head coaches were once making and not expect accountability.
Bill O’Brien, in just two years, also didn’t hesitate to make changes he thought necessary — even when he was about to leave himself.
Franklin struck gold with Moorhead, who was an ideal fit with Trace McSorley’s skill set.
The offensive structure took advantage of a rich receiving corps that was coached up by Josh Gattis and the benefit of having the defense take two steps toward Saquon Barkley every time he flinched.
But while the Moorhead hire was a home run, other replacements haven’t worked out nearly as well.
Ricky Rahne had a pedestrian year as the offensive coordinator, though he’s deserving of a second season.
Corley, originally hired to replace Charles Huff, was put in a tough spot since he was hired out of West Point as a running backs coach but then switched when Franklin had a chance to get Ja’Juan Seider, who has deep SEC roots.
Huff not only did a good job with the running backs but the special teams as well, necessitating more changes. Gerad Parker has been hired to replace Corley, and Joe Lorig steps in for Galiano.
So as we’ve seen the last two years, making changes and managing change are different.
Not surprisingly, the defense outperformed the offense last year, and the staff continuity on that side of the ball has to be a reason why.
Last season saw four offensive coaches — Rahne, Corley, Seiders, and tight ends coach Tyler Bowen, who took Rahne’s positional duties, plus Galiano — in new roles, and it showed.
This year, that number will just be two, Parker and Lorig.
That should help, but the management of change will shift to the players as Penn State has seen the most dramatic roster turnover in its history.
Roughly one-third of the players who ended last season on the Lions’ roster have flown the coop. That’s a staggering number.
That includes the graduates (led by McSorley, Amani Oruwariye), the guys who left early for the NFL and are expected to go fairly high (Miles Sanders, Connor McGovern), the guys who left early for the NFL and are just hoping to be drafted (Ryan Bates, Kevin Givens), all the transfers with eligibility left (led by Juwan Johnson and Torrence Brown) and special teams players who made an impact who had eligibility left (Jarvis Miller, Zach Simpson).
Some of the movement has been created by a more friendly college football world that provides freedom for the players, unlike the days when they were generally fitted with cement shoes upon signing their letter-of-intent.
And did I mention Penn State will be breaking in a new quarterback for the first time really since Christian Hackenberg won the job in 2013? McSorley technically had to beat out Tommy Stevens in 2016, but McSorley’s great showing against Georgia in the TaxSlayer Bowl pretty much clinched the job at that time.
Other than being around for four years — his loyalty should be credited, certainly — Stevens has no such running start on Sean Clifford, who has shown to be a better passer.
So add Franklin’s biggest decision to his list of what will be new in 2019.
Franklin has embraced the changing world — he should; it’s obviously benefited him and his staff — but he would like to see more patience and trust exhibited by some players and their families.
“I want all these guys to be able to chase their dreams in the NFL, but I’m still a huge believer of the student-athlete and our model and it should be about getting education first, and then also being able to chase their dreams at the highest level,” he said earlier this spring. “We want that for them, as well … That’s always a hard balance now. Do you play a guy as a true freshman because if you don’t, and you redshirt him, you may not have him for that fifth year.”
Fifth year? You may not have him a fourth year. Despite not starting a game last season, stud true freshman linebacker Micah Parsons led the team in tackles and will be counted on as a defensive leader this season.
Barring the unforeseen, 2020 will likely be his last as a Nittany Lion. Sanders also only stayed three years.
Because Penn State has recruited so well, upperclassmen like Johnson and Brandon Polk saw up-and-comers pass them on the depth chart. The result was the Lions leading the nation in players exploring the new transfer portal with 14.
“Because we’ve improved dramatically in such a short period of time, especially in the way probably people nationally viewed our program six years ago, and then also the way recruiting has changed dramatically … it really changes how you have to manage your roster and your team,” Franklin said.
There’s also the reality that college football has become so demanding, one pretty much void of an offseason, that players who don’t see light on the depth chart are anxious to try it somewhere else, at a lower level, and some others are just anxious to see if and where they fit in the professional ranks, if at all.
It adds up to a ton of new numbers, names and faces.
So keep a Blue-White roster handy today and this fall. I will.
Neil Rudel covers Penn State football and can be reached by email at email@example.com.