Despite offensive struggles, Penn State coach James Franklin strongly backs Ricky Rahne

(Scranton) Times-Tribune (TNS)

James Franklin gave a decisive backing of his first-year offensive coordinator Tuesday, days after Penn State’s worst scoring output in nearly two years in a loss to Michigan State.

Ricky Rahne

The Nittany Lions’ head coach strongly supported Ricky Rahne, then applied that same approval to the rest of a coaching staff that experienced “a decent amount of turnover” heading into the this season.

During the Joe Moorhead regime the last two years, Penn State underwent an offensive renaissance, ranking in the top 10 in scoring offense last season. Moorhead left Happy Valley late last year to take over as head coach at Mississippi State, and in their first six games with Rahne at the helm, the Nittany Lions rank eighth in the nation in scoring offense (44.2 ppg) and 13th in total offense (491.2 ypg), but faltered at times in losses to Ohio State and Michigan State the last two games.

“I think Ricky is doing a really good job,” Franklin said. “I think, like all of us, there are a few calls that he wishes he had back, and I think you’d probably say that for every offensive coordinator in the country, and I think we’ll probably be saying that five years from now as well.”

Fact of the matter is, Penn State’s coaching staff has experienced its share of turnover during the Franklin era, and that was especially the case last season.

Receivers coach Josh Gattis took the same job at Alabama, and special teams coordinator Charles Huff left to join Moorhead in Starksville. David Corley took over for Gattis, while Ja’Juan Seider and Tyler Bowen got the other two open spots.

Franklin conceded that the staff is young, but added he also believes it will be very good over a longer period of time.

“I feel good about the people we’ve got sitting in the seats that they’re in,” he said. “Does experience count and does experience matter? No doubt about it. All of us get better the longer we’re in the positions that we’re in, as long as we’re open to listening and learning and challenging others and challenging ourselves. Then, you have an opportunity to grow.

“I feel really good about my staff and where we’re going. But I don’t want that to be misconstrued. We can get better. And, we will get better.”

New hands on deck: The more experienced receivers that coaches had ticketed to move into bigger roles this season have largely fizzled.

Junior Juwan Johnson, an all-Big Ten selection last season, leads Penn State in receptions with 19. He had just two last week against Michigan State and has struggled with drops. Combined, speedsters Brandon Polk and DeAndre Thompkins have just 15 catches, and quarterback Trace McSorley’s most-targeted receivers last week were freshmen K.J. Hamler, Pat Freiermuth and Mac Hippenhammer.

Franklin admitted the staff is considering ways some of Penn State’s prized true freshmen — Justin Shorter, Daniel George and Jahan Dotson — might be able to help.

“We do have a lot of confidence in those vets,” Franklin said. “I think, obviously, we feel like they’re going to have one of those breakout games, and we feel like that every week. But there are some young guys we’re looking at.

“We’re not as explosive or efficient in the passing game as we need to be.”

Bottom line, Franklin said, is the receivers haven’t been consistent enough. Penn State entered last week’s game with 17 dropped passes, the most among teams from Power Five conferences this season, according to Pro Football Focus.

Hansard done: Backup defensive tackle Fred Hansard’s season is over, Franklin said.

The 6-foot-3, 326-pound freshman suffered what appeared to be a leg injury in the second half against Michigan State, and Franklin said he has undergone surgery. A four-star recruit in the 2017 class, Hansard had two tackles this season.

Franklin said the rest of the defensive tackle group will have to step up to fill the void, adding that redshirt freshman Damion Barber, who has played sparingly, will be relied upon more as the season goes on.