Franklin, Penn State expecting to make big strides in 2015


UNIVERSITY PARK — Year 2 of the James Franklin era will show marked improvement for the Penn State program and especially its quarterback, the head coach predicted Thursday.

The Nittany Lions finished 7-6 in 2014-15, thanks to a 31-30 win over Boston College in the Pinstripe Bowl.

"We have a much better understanding of Penn State now, and a much better understanding of the Big Ten Conference," Franklin said to packed room for media day at Beaver Stadium. "Most importantly, we have a much better understanding of our players."

After a stellar freshman campaign in 2013, quarterback Christian Hackenberg threw 15 interceptions against just 12 touchdowns last season, and was frequently under pressure from opposing defenses. Hackenberg's stats got a boost from the bowl game, when he threw for 371 yards and four TDs with no picks – perhaps the beginning of the passer's turnaround.

"Year 2 is always the year when you're going to see some jumps in a lot of areas," Hackenberg said. "It's huge leaving Year 1 and working to get better."

Franklin said his program is stable after years of transition – from Joe Paterno's firing in late 2011 through Johnstown native Tom Bradley's three games as interim coach to two years under Bill O'Brien and one season with Franklin.

The coach said of such periods: "There's wounds" that need to heal.

Franklin's staff returns intact and the coach said his team has grown through an offseason under the same system, consistent coaching and a steady playbook.

"Last year, there was a lot of feeling out in a lot of our development," Franklin said. "Everybody was new in a lot of directions."

The team now has its full compliment of 85 scholarships, thanks to an easing of the sanctions from the Jerry Sandusky scandal.

That will show up most notably on the on the offensive line, which was frequently blamed for quarterback Hackenberg's sophomore slump.

Last year, four new starters lined up in front of Hackenberg. This year, four of five return, with Donovon Smith now in the National Football League.

"We've got one year under out belts," tackle Andrew Nelson said. "Getting all those snaps and reps last year was really important.

"For a lot of us, it was really our first time out in Beaver Stadium playing in front of those huge crowds."

The Lions open play Sept. 5 at Temple. The home opener is a week later against Buffalo.

The Big Ten Conference season begins Sept. 19 at home against Rutgers.

Other home opponents will include: San Diego State (Sept. 26); Army (Oct. 3); Indiana (Oct. 10); Illinois (Oct. 31) and Michigan (Nov. 21).

Franklin believes "there's a buzz about Penn State football right now," and embraced the chance to get back on the field Thursday evening for the team's first preseason practice.

"We've spent a lot of time in the offseason watching us committing turnovers on tape or having a big loss on tape," Franklin said. "Those are not fun experiences.

"Whether you won 12 games or seven games, you spend all offseason critiquing yourself and looking at areas where you need to get better."

Ready to run: Junior Akeel Lynch is set to get the lion's share of plays at running back in 2015.

Lynch rushed for 678 yards and four TDs last season, splitting time with Bill Belton and Zach Zwinak, both now gone.

The native of Canada was the 2011 New York Gatorade Player of the Year at St. Francis High School near Buffalo.

"I would love for (Lynch), from Day 1 through the end of the season, to make it profoundly obvious that we've got one big-time back that we can hang our hat on," Franklin said. "He has been patient and waited for his time. And he's prepared himself for that time so that he's ready."

Lynch is backed by a bunch of youngsters that include highly regarded freshmen Nick Scott and Saquon Barkley.

On the line: Two transfers are expected to bolster the blocking duties.

Paris Palmer, a 6-7, 288-pound junior tackle from Plymouth, North Carolina, started his career at Lackawana College and was one of the top junior college recruits in the nation.

Kevin Reiner, a 6-3, 315-pound senior from Scranton, earned a degree in engineering and management science while playing in 10 games at Stanford.

Reiner's father, George, was an offensive tackle at Penn State in 1974-77.

Reiner said he played with Andrew Luck and spent this summer watching film with his new quarterback, Hackenberg.

"Christian is a football junkie," Reiner said. "The kid is addicted to the game. He's a great guy. He loves his offensive line and has been very supportive."

When in Spain: Eight players skipped media day to finish preparing for a Spanish final exam.

The players – including Lynch and starting linebacker Brandon Bell – took 12 credits of Spanish, the equivalent of three courses, over the summer.

"So they won't be here taking any questions," Franklin said. "If we ask questions in Spanish, we can text them to them and maybe they can get bonus points."