Franklin deals with delicate balance

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (TNS)

Penn State is coming down the home stretch of the 2016 recruiting cycle and James Franklin is still trying to strike a delicate balance with fans.

That part has been two-plus years in the making, dating to the day Franklin rattled off a lengthy to-do list at his introductory news conference where he made promises to fill 107,000-seat Beaver Stadium for every home game, dominate the state on the recruiting trail and even blow up balloons at birthday parties.

Before Franklin coached a game at Penn State, he and his staff didn’t hold back, regularly referring to Penn State as the “in-state institution.” At a spring coaches caravan stop before his first season, Franklin said Big Ten Conference newcomers Rutgers and Maryland “don’t have a chance” to win recruiting battles in the Lions’ footprint. The coaching staff jumped out of the gate with a lot of excitement they generated themselves, but two seasons in, the pressure will continue to mount as Franklin’s overinflated birthday-party balloons could be leaking air.

Did Franklin, who lost two assistant coaches in the past two weeks as defensive coordinator Bob Shoop and offensive line coach Herb Hand left for Tennessee and Auburn, promise too much too soon for a team that was working through scholarship limitations stemming from NCAA sanctions and then went 7-6 in back-to-back seasons?

“I think it really depends on what people were listening to,” Franklin said Saturday in a season-ending teleconference. “But I made that comment several times that that’s probably the most challenging situation for a football coach is to explain to people kind of where we truly are, but get people excited about the program as well.”

So where is Penn State as Franklin starts this third season and wraps up his second full recruiting cycle? The Lions’ success on the recruiting trail — which looks to continue as Penn State puts the finishing touches on its 2016 class, a 17-member group ranked 24th in the nation by — is met by a team that has a new coordinator on each side of the ball.

This spring, there will be a new, mobile quarterback under center who was recruited by Franklin, and the offensive line that bottomed out each of the past two seasons needs to improve under the direction of new position coach Matt Limegrover. A defensive line once bursting with depth and NFL talent must replace three of their front four.

The special teams, aiming to hold on to a scholarship kicker and punter in this 2016 class, should have more talent on the coverage units as players come off redshirt seasons. The Lions haven’t returned a kick for a touchdown since 2011 or a punt for a score since 2008, and failed to consistently flip field position this season.

All that might help explain why Franklin’s tone, including calling into a Pittsburgh radio station as “James from State College” while the Lions got off to a 4-0 start in 2014, has been dialed back since. Stopping the back-and-forth comments on social media with Pitt’s coaches was addressed with the Penn State staff during the season and Franklin hasn’t publicly taken jabs at other teams in quite some time.

However, he said Penn State is about where he expected it to be when he took the job.

“If you take the emotion out of it and you take a piece of paper out and you write down all of the challenges that we have had as an organization, as an institution, as a football program, I would actually say if you did it that way, we’re probably ahead [of schedule],” he said.

Given the turnover of his coaching staff this offseason with two new coordinators, a new offensive line coach and a new safeties coach/co-defensive coordinator, Franklin said Penn State continues to deal with negative recruiting against it. As other teams look to sell prospects on their schools before faxing in their letter of intent Feb. 3, Penn State’s struggles — whether from the sanctions, coaching changes or back-to-back 7-6 seasons — make it an easy target, especially in the highly competitive Big Ten East division.

Franklin, adding that he’ll be a positive guy until the day he dies, said his staff won’t bash other programs to get to where he wants his team to go.

“I think you guys know that’s kind of not how we do things and not who I am,” he said. “A lot of other schools approach it a different way and I think a lot of it, to be honest with you, is a strong Penn State makes it really difficult for a lot of other programs in this region. A strong Penn State makes it challenging for a lot of people.”