WOGENRICH: Franklin's big vision born from small moves

(Allentown) Morning Call (TNS)
  • Penn State began its 2017 spring practices on Wednesday.
  • The Nittany Lions are coming off a Big Ten championship.
  • James Franklin wants PSU to become the "No. 1 organization" in college football.

James Franklin became Penn State's football coach in 2014 with an index finger raised.

Penn State head coach James Franklin holds the trophy after Penn State won the Big Ten championship last season. The Nittany Lions are ranked No. 6 the preseason Coaches Poll.

By now, even his players tease Franklin for pointing the No. 1 sign in every photo he takes.

Then last December, Franklin had his moment, raising the Big Ten championship trophy in Indianapolis instead of an index finger. Now, the coach begins his fourth season at Penn State pointing ever higher.

"We're talking about building the No. 1 organization in all of college football," Franklin said this week.

Big visions best take shape in small moves, and Penn State notched its next increment Wednesday with the start of spring drills. Last spring, practice brought so many questions: Who's the quarterback? How does the new offense fit? How will the defensive line rebuild?

And, most important, what happens if Penn State doesn't improve?

The Lions answered them across three months that ended with them kissing a silver football in Indianapolis. And Franklin, subject of unfounded rumors about his future, had tangible proof that his process worked.

Building from ground up: What's the big question for Penn State this spring? Beyond the limited position duels and the assessment of redshirt freshmen, Franklin gets to tackle the scope of his vision. After finishing one spot out of the College Football Playoff last season, Penn State faces the next step of repeating as Big Ten champ and getting there.

That's daunting, even for a program that returns nine offensive starters, including one of the nation's top players in Saquon Barkley, and its entire coaching staff. But big visions best take shape in small moves, which is why Franklin is starting over again with his program.

"We have to recreate this team, you know, from the ground up," Franklin said.

Workout warriors: That began even before Wednesday. After two weeks off following the Rose Bowl, Penn State returned to the weight room, just as every other program in the country did, for what Barkley in January called the "awful" but necessary winter workouts.

Dwight Galt, Penn State's director of performance enhancement, last week summarized the team's progress by noting gains in bench-press and power-clean weights. Franklin cited the reduced body-fat ratios measured in Penn State's bod pod.

Those gains are great, and vital to all successful teams, but what Franklin described carried his point another step further. Take, for instance, running back Miles Sanders. He contributed as a freshman, guided largely by "genetics and Mother Nature," as Franklin described, but still needed to make substantial physical gains.

Sanders now weighs 224 pounds, without giving away a trace of his speed, because of a newfound competition in the weight room. At Penn State, where Barkley is "warming up with your maxes," as Franklin said, that invigorated him.

"It's about pushing guys outside of their comfort zone and really trying to speed up the maturation process," Franklin said. "Instead of waiting for a guy to grow up, you're kind of forcing it to happen, quickly."

Starting from scratch: That will extend to the practice field. Last spring, offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead installed a playbook that generated one of the most significant single-season turnarounds in Penn State history. It was an ongoing process that didn't really find its consistent stride until the second month of the season.

But with Moorhead, Barkley and quarterback Trace McSorley back as the offense's foundation, this spring would seem like a good time to go graduate level. Instead, Franklin said the offense will start from scratch.

"All of our quarterbacks are back," Franklin said. "So does that mean that we don't go over how we call the play, how we signal, how we tempo? Do we take all those things for granted? Or do we force ourselves to go back from the beginning and teach it like it's never been taught before?"

The face of Penn State is Franklin and his No. 1, a brand the coach cultivated himself. Now it means something. Will he ever get there?

The small moves will determine.