As easy as Penn State fans think it might be to find someone better to run the Nittany Lions’ offensive coordinator than the guy who led it to national rankings of 107 and 105 in total offense during his two seasons in the program, this sobering fact still remains:
James Franklin has to make a can’t-miss hire now.
Penn State can’t keep running its program this way. It needs stability, and it needs structure, and what it doesn’t need is a fan base and a slew of boosters who think they can make decisions about who coaches and who can’t.
For now, let’s give Franklin the benefit of the doubt and assume he came to the decision to fire the much-maligned John Donovan on Sunday because of Donovan’s often-suspect play-calling, or the fact he couldn’t maximize quarterback Christian Hackenberg’s immense ability within his offense, or even because Donovan is the tight ends coach, and it’s difficult to picture any team’s set of tight ends this season performing as poorly as Penn State’s did.
But in defense of Donovan, nobody knows if his system is effective. Nobody knows how good he is, because he was never given a chance as a coordinator to run it with players his coaching staff brought in to run it.
Sure, fans are going to point out that his offenses didn’t rank much better in his three seasons at Vanderbilt. Understand this, though: He has never had a leading passer guiding one of his offenses who was brought in by Franklin. The only one who even started for him was Patton Robinette, who as a redshirt freshman at Vanderbilt in 2013 started three games. He has never had a leading receiver who committed to his school while Franklin was the coach who led his team in receiving yards, nor did he have a second-leading receiver like that. And in five years, he has had just two running backs who committed to his staffs — Vandy’s Jerron Seymour in 2013 and Saquon Barkley this season — lead his team in rushing.
An easy argument can be made that Donovan didn’t get a fair chance to show what he could do, and it’s indisputable that he never will at Penn State. But, in a program built on consistency and presence and coaching longevity, it would still be preferable not feel compelled to change coaches at every bump in the road. That’s why Franklin has to find someone who will have some success early, who will provide noticeable improvement for an offense that simply hadn’t stoked anyone’s imagination under Donovan.
While the direction of Penn State’s national search has not yet come to light, here are some names Franklin could consider as he looks for Donovan’s replacement:
►Mike Locksley, Maryland interim head coach: This would likely not be an overwhelmingly supported selection by Penn State fans, because Locksley’s Maryland offense hasn’t exactly been much better than Penn State’s. It finished the regular season 85th in total offense nationally, was second-to-last in his first season and 2012 and didn’t finish better than 68th at any other point.
But, he has worked with Franklin years ago, and Illinois’ offense did improve every season Locksley coordinated it from 2005 through 2008, peaking at No. 29 in the nation. He’s also known as a dominant recruiter in the Washington, D.C., area, which is one Penn State would like to be dominant in again.
► John McNulty, Tennessee Titans quarterbacks coach: The Clarks Summit native always seems to be on the periphery of Penn State coaching searches. But, he’s a solid coach who would check off all the boxes Penn State is looking for in an offensive coordinator. He’s experienced. In three years as Rutgers’ offensive coordinator under Greg Schiano, his offenses never ranked worse than 49th in the nation, and they were among the 20 best in 2008.
He has coaching experience in the NFL. He has coached Larry Fitzgerald as receivers coach in Arizona, and Carson Palmer as quarterbacks coach there. And now, he’s working with last year’s Heisman Trophy winner, Marcus Mariota, in Tennessee.
He’s also a Penn State graduate himself, and he’d likely have plenty of recruiting inroads from his days at Rutgers.
► Bill Lazor, former Miami Dolphins offensive coordinator: Lazor was an interesting possibility even before he was fired by the Dolphins on Monday.
A Scranton native, Lazor was considered one of the top young assistants in the NFL before the tire fire started in Miami. He has worked with five different NFL teams, coached quarterbacks for Chip Kelly with the Eagles in 2013 and had success as a coordinator with Virginia from 2010 through 2012.
► Tyson Helton, Western Kentucky offensive coordinator/Sean Lewis, Bowling Green co-offensive coordinator: Franklin has said in the past that he keeps a list of coaches in other programs he believes could help at Penn State, and presumably, they’re coaches he knows at least a bit personally. Who knows if Helton or Lewis are on that list. But, if Franklin simply goes after the biggest young name on the market, Helton and Lewis would be in the running.
Lewis’ Falcons are second in the nation in total offense, with Helton’s Hilltoppers at No. 10. Take away Baylor, Texas Tech and Oklahoma, and no offenses in the nation are scoring more points per game than these (42.2 ppg each).
► Herb Hand, Penn State offensive line coach: OK, so this would be a daring choice, because almost as many Penn State fans wanted Hand fired as they did Donovan. But, if Franklin wants to maintain some continuity with the current staff, Hand would actually be a solid choice. In 2007 and 2008, Hand was the co-offensive coordinator at Tulsa, when the Golden Hurricanes ranked No. 1 two years running in total offense in the nation. Of course, the other co-coordinator on that team was Gus Malzahn, the Auburn head coach who handled most of the pass-game responsibilities. When Hand got his chance as the sole offensive coordinator in 2009, Tulsa wasn’t nearly as explosive, falling to No. 44 in the nation.
He’s likely a much better candidate to be the interim coordinator for a bowl game than the long-term solution. But that’s the thing: Nobody knows where Franklin and Penn State could be leaning here.