Penn State coach James Franklin wasn’t overly eager Tuesday afternoon to discuss other potential job openings — he’s been called a strong candidate for both Florida State and USC — but he did want to make something clear this time.
He isn’t planning on heading anywhere else.
“We love it here,” Franklin said, referring to Happy Valley during his weekly press conference. “Really enjoying coaching these guys and don’t really see that changing anytime soon.”
Yahoo! Sports’ Pete Thamel labeled Franklin the top coaching candidate for the Seminoles, after they fired Willie Taggart on Sunday following his 9-12 start with the program. And, earlier Tuesday, Thamel’s outlet also called Franklin the top target for USC, which still has Clay Helton as head coach — for now — after falling to 5-4 on the year with a 56-24 loss to Oregon.
Franklin, who’s been with the Nittany Lions since 2014, didn’t spend much time talking about the speculation Tuesday and attempted to keep his answer light-hearted. After all, he technically wasn’t even asked directly about Florida State or USC. One Penn State reporter simply asked whether he addresses rumors with his players or whether the speculation personally bothers him.
But the Penn State head coach, maybe remembering how things played out last season, decided to tackle the issue head-on Tuesday.
“Whenever anything comes up, we try to address it,” Franklin added. “Make sure everybody kind of understands where we’re at with everything, with coaches, with players, with recruits, with all of it. But we try to stay as focused as we possibly can on the task at hand. All those things that take away from that, we try to stay away from as much as we possibly can.”
“I’ve also heard PJ’s name mentioned for a bunch,” Franklin said with a smile, referring to Minnesota coach PJ Fleck, “so you guys should spend a lot of time calling him and talking to him about it and their program.”
Franklin took a different approach to the speculation last season, which wasn’t quite so well-received by fans. Around this time last year, when given the chance to quell coaching rumors, Franklin instead deflected any questions and offered no real answers — before he apologized the next day, released a statement and explained he thought the issue would go away if he simply ignored it.
Well, it didn’t — so, this year, Franklin reiterated the coaches enjoy Happy Valley and “don’t really see that changing anytime soon.”
Franklin has rebuilt Penn State from a respectable program recovering from the 2012 sanctions to a national power that’s been ranked within the top 10 at some point in each of the last four seasons. The Nittany Lions are currently 8-0 for the first time since 2008, are ranked No. 5 nationally in the AP Poll and are on the cusp of a spot in the College Football Playoff.
Franklin has often said, privately, that he wants to be the first African-American football coach to win the national championship. And it sure appears as if PSU gives him the best opportunity for that right now.
Injury update: Both true freshman running back Noah Cain and fifth-year cornerback John Reid appear to be on pace to play Saturday against Minnesota, according to head coach James Franklin.
Franklin does not usually address injuries but, after both players went down Oct. 26 against Michigan State, the head coach told reporters after the game that neither injury appeared to be long term. Reid suffered an upper-body injury after he appeared to come down awkwardly on an arm or shoulder, while Cain had a lower-body injury and needed teammates to help him off the field after the game.
Franklin said again Tuesday afternoon that both Cain and Reid should play against the Golden Gophers.
“Yeah,” he said. “John Reid and Noah Cain’s availability Saturday, we’re expecting them to go.”
Adjustments with DT suspension: With Penn State defensive tackle Antonio Shelton suspended for Saturday’s game against Minnesota, the Nittany Lions will adjust by starting PJ Mustipher, a “backup” who usually plays about half of the defense’s snaps, and increasing the snap counts for the starters.
James Franklin said Tuesday that starting DT Robert Windsor and Mustipher will be asked to play 15-20 more snaps than usual, with backups such as Fred Hansard and Judge Culpepper coming in a bit more often, as well.
“That’s going to be a big story line for this game,” Franklin said, referring to the matchup in the trenches. “I don’t think we’ve seen a line like this this year, but I’d also make the argument that I don’t know if they have seen a D-line like us before, either.”
What makes Minnesota’s offensive line unique is just how massive it is. For example, the Gophers’ right tackle is Daniel Faalele, who stands 6-foot-9 and 400 pounds. That’s not a typo. Four-hundred pounds.
Scouting Minnesota: James Franklin was very complimentary of the Golden Gophers on Tuesday. He told reporters he has a “man-crush” on DB Antoine Winfield Jr., called Minnesota “probably the best offensive line that we have played” and said it has the “best wide receiver group we have played.”
That’s a lot of superlatives. But Franklin isn’t wrong.
Minnesota’s OL is unique because it’s so massive. “They have the biggest offensive line, I think, in the country — college, including the NFL,” Franklin said. Minnesota’s top-two wideouts, Rashod Bateman and Tyler Johnson, are the Big Ten’s Nos. 3 and 4 wideouts in terms of receiving yards per game with 80.5 ypg and 78.3 ypg, respectively. And Winfield is tied for second nationally with five interceptions.
“I’ve gotten to know P.J. (Fleck) pretty well over the years,” Franklin said, referring to Minnesota’s head coach. “He’s obviously done a great job. You look at what he was able to do at Western Michigan, you look at what he’s been able to do now at Minnesota, it’s hard to not be impressed with what he’s been able to do.”
Penn State OL still building: The Nittany Lions don’t boast the most-feared offensive line in the conference, and they likely won’t have many All-Big Ten selections. But the offensive line is stable, has avoided criticism after an early bump in the season and has become an above-average unit.
James Franklin took some time Tuesday to reflect back on just how far that unit has come since he first arrived in Happy Valley in 2014.
“We’re in a good place. As you know, when I got here, that was not the case,” he said. “We couldn’t have been any further from that. I think we had six or seven scholarship offensive linemen when we got here, which is one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever been a part of, to be honest with you. We’re in a much better place, but we have to keep building.”
In Franklin’s first season, Penn State couldn’t even field two complete units in the annual spring scrimmage. Now, it’s tied for 50th nationally in sacks allowed (1.75 per game) and 72nd in tackles-for-loss allowed (6.0 per game). Again, not elite — but a lot different from where the line used to be.
“The fact that not a lot of people are talking about the O-line and I don’t get a lot of questions about it is a good thing,” Franklin added.