The first question tossed James Franklin’s way at essentially the first press conference of the 2017 Penn State football season seemed as obvious as it was direct.
How many scholarships do you have handed out right now?
Scholarships, after all, are what every Penn State fan talks about at this time of year, and it’s an even bigger topic as signing day approaches Feb. 1. For the first time in a long time, the Nittany Lions seem to actually be threatening the notion that too many scholarship players will be on campus in the fall. The coaching staff has four early enrolees already on campus. It has 15 other players verbally committed to sign scholarship offers in 10 days. And, it has all but been confirmed, four players who were walk-ons heading into last season have been granted scholarships at some point since August.
With 65 players who were on scholarship last season returning, well, simple math creates for some big questions about how Penn State plans to stay at or under the 85-scholarship limit.
Here’s the thing about all of that, though: Fans and media members are guessing, making an immediate issue out of what coaches sometimes consider an extremely abstract idea.
Take, for instance, Franklin’s response to that question, which may surprise even the most ardent Penn State fans:
“I have no idea,” is what he said. “We want to make sure that we’re at 85 or as close to 85 as we can for next fall.”
Tricky thing: Franklin went on to confirm the coaching staff believes it can add one or perhaps two more prospects in the 2017 recruiting class, which is proof the number of doled out scholarships right now certainly means far less than the number that will appear on the roster come September.
Scholarships are a tricky thing to discuss, which is probably why Penn State rarely does unless Franklin gets asked about them directly. They’re a year-to-year proposition, by definition, and just because a particular player is on scholarship one season, doesn’t mean he will be the following one. They’re also not easy to take away in good conscience. If a player is succeeding in school and off the field, it’s rare to see one have the scholarship taken away for purely athletic reasons.
And because of all that, Franklin either went into full detail or brushed by several ways scholarship numbers are made to work during that frank discussion in the Beaver Stadium media room Saturday morning, never once admitting though that Penn State is considering any of those avenues.
The most obvious way is scholarship players can leave for a better opportunity. That’s what backup defensive tackle Antoine White did last week, when he announced on Twitter that he’d be playing this fall at FCS Albany.
Hamilton staying, Beh uncertain: There are some players who most following the program assumed could fall under that category, and Franklin was asked directly about a few.
One is receiver DaeSean Hamilton, who has seen his numbers and his role decrease the last two years, and who earned his degree in December and could play at an FBS school as a graduate transfer in the fall. But, Franklin confirmed Hamilton is planning to return, and the staff is expecting him to be a major contributor.
Another is Noah Beh, the offensive lineman from Scranton Prep who got relegated to scout team duty after being suspended for an unspecified violation of team rules last October. Asked about whether he expected Beh to be part of the team this fall, Franklin offered a “We’ll see.”
“I think every guy’s situation is different, and how they handle those situations...we want all these situations that happened for our guys to be opportunities for growth,” Franklin said. “I think as coaches, if we handle that way and the players handle it that way, then they learn from it, they grow, they move forward, they move on, and they’re better for it and we’re better for it, all of us.”
Grayshirts: Franklin said grayshirts — holding a player off until the spring semester, when there will be more room available on the roster post-graduation — haven’t been discussed, but are a possibility. He also said there are some walk-ons who are still considering whether to return next season, but as for the scholarship players, “we’re pretty clear at this point of who we have coming back and who we don’t, and like I said, there will be some conversations with some guys, and there will probably be a little bit of wiggle room between now and the start of camp.”
So, stay tuned. The Penn State scholarship roster will be an interesting story as 2017 progresses toward opening day. But also understand, as Franklin said, the scholarship roster is much more fluid right now than most outside the program tend to treat it around signing day.