Penn State coach James Franklin certainly heard the calls for his firing last season, and in a way he thanks you for shouting them.
With Penn State in Week 2 of training camp, we recount Franklin’s memory of the 2016 Minnesota game — and how it informed his coaching later — along with some other topics around the team.
‘Savor all of life’s experiences:’ The Lions and their 2-2 record trailed Minnesota 13-3 at halftime last September, prompting some strained “fire Franklin” jeers at Beaver Stadium.
You know what happened next.
Saquon Barkley scored the game-winning touchdown in overtime, touching off a nine-game winning streak and a Big Ten title.
Franklin said that “the fans telling me exactly how they felt in that game” impacted the way he coached later in the season. Those chants helped Franklin convince his players later to maintain their keel during the win streak.
“I'm a big believer that you savor all of life's experiences,” Franklin said. “The only way you really can appreciate and recognize the good is if you've been through the adversity and the challenges.”
Mowen and Blacknall: Speaking of adversity and challenges…
Franklin suspended two starters, linebacker Manny Bowen and receiver Saeed Blacknall, for the Rose Bowl for unspecified rules violations. Both players said they apologized and moved on, and Franklin considered their transgressions history.
“I love those guys and I believe in those guys,” Franklin said. “And I'm not just talking about over [their] four to five years here at Penn State. I'm talking the next 40 to 50 years.”
Regarding this year, Bowen and Blacknall will be vital. A junior, Bowen has played all three linebacker positions, shifting full-time to the Will (or weakside) spot this season. He said the move will help him take advantage of his best position strengths.
“It works out well, being able to use my speed in the box evading linemen,” Bowen said, “or, if I have to, using my strength taking linemen on.”
Blacknall has more work to regain a starting spot, considering he lost time last spring because of an injury. The 6-3 senior played nine games (starting seven) last season and could be crucial in generating some of Chris Godwin’s departed production. His two-touchdown performance against Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game underscored his big-play ability.
“Personally, I took this offseason to focus on the offensive playbook, getting my mind right for being a leader, being a senior and being overall a better player and person,” Blacknall said.
Barkley in slot?: Saquon Barkley, slot receiver?
Expect that to happen more. Franklin said he plans to use the running back from Whitehall High “in every way we possibly can.”
Barkley caught 28 passes for 402 yards last season, with signature wheel-route touchdowns against Pitt and Wisconsin. Offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead revels in getting Barkley free in coverage against linebackers, and the back has studied how to do that more from the slot-receiver position.
“I feel, and Coach Franklin will agree, that I'm capable of being lined up in the slot, being able to run routes,” Barkley said. “I did a lot of one-on-one reps this summer with the defense, against DBs and linebackers …trying to really fix my routes to become more of a threat in the offense.”
Tempered return for Nelson, Mahon: Offensive linemen Andrew Nelson and Brendan Mahon started a combined 15 games in 2016 before injuries ended their seasons. They’re versatile, experienced linemen whose return will make an impact on Penn State’s offense. The coaches aren’t rushing them, though.
Neither Nelson (knee injury) nor Mahon (undisclosed medical reason) participated in contact drills during spring practice. They also have been returning methodically to drills in training camp.
“I love how they’re progressing right now,” offensive line coach Matt Limegrover said. “The biggest thing is, you don’t want to put your foot on the gas too much and have setbacks.”
Mahon, the team’s most experienced lineman with 29 starts, has played guard and tackle. He likely will return at guard. Nelson, who sustained his knee injury last October, might have a longer road back but is a fine option to have in the rotation.
Limegrover said he expects both players to be ready for the Sept. 2 opener against Akron.