For Penn State football coach James Franklin, adjustment process, tough decisions continue
The 2020 college football season was a surreal one, with many disrupted schedules and traditions.
Some schools and leagues chose not to participate at all.
Penn State and the Big Ten Conference didn’t make a choice to play until the 11th hour.
For the Nittany Lions and head coach James Franklin, these strange decisions and adjustments will continue well into 2021. Franklin addressed these oddities and challenges in a Zoom press conference Monday.
Penn State didn’t play its first game until Oct. 24. The Lions didn’t earn their first victory until Nov. 28. Then they went on a four-game winning streak to salvage a 4-5 record after an 0-5 start.
Weirder yet, the Nittany Lions still had an opportunity to go to a bowl game because the pandemic considerations allowed for FBS to lower the qualification standards for a year.
The weirdest part? The team chose not to participate.
So for the first time since the 2013 season — when they were ineligible for bowl games because of NCAA sanctions related to the Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse case — they would not be a part of college football’s postseason.
Franklin talked about Penn State’s unprecedented 2020 season and the challenges of trying to keep up with the changing landscape of college football while navigating around all pandemic-related roadblocks.
Here are some of the areas he covered Monday:
New and old identity: At the top of everyone’s list were questions about why Franklin fired offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca after just one season and replaced him with Mike Yurcich.
“I think at the end of the day it was a very tough decision, obviously,” Franklin said, “but philosophically I felt like it was the right thing for us to do to get where we want to go and play, you know, a style on offense that I think is going to be important for us to play in a lot of different ways.”
Franklin believes in Yurcich’s concepts — including the spread and extensive use of RPOs — to make the team more explosive, help them protect the football better and ultimately put more points on the board. These are things Franklin believes Penn State needs to be competitive and what the team, frankly, had been doing more of before Ciarrocca was installed.
“The emphasis on explosive plays and emphasis on [fewer] turnovers, and an emphasis on scoring points — they’re the three most important things that you have to do on offense,” Franklin said. “And specifically in current college football, the way this thing is trending, there’s going to be games where you’re going to have to score 40 points. You know, 42-41 or 42-40 or whatever it may be. And those things are a premium now probably more than ever. So you know that’s really the emphasis and, and those statistics and those things make sure that aligns with how we want to play and the exciting brand of football we want to play on offense.”
Penn State scored just 25 points against Ohio State, 19 against Maryland, 23 against Nebraska and 21 against Iowa — all losses that came after opening the season with a devastating 36-35 loss to Indiana in overtime.
Defense measured differently: In this era of football, the best defense can be a good offense, Franklin subtly: suggested. Nevertheless, he admitted he needs more turnovers, fewer explosive plays allowed and better red-zone efficiency from his defense.
But even with all of that, sometimes it’s going to take 40-plus points to win. That’s a plateau Penn State reached just once in 2020.
“You know, the evolution of offensive football and what we would consider good defense has changed dramatically,” Franklin said. “So it will be interesting to see how this thing continues to evolve.”
Roster turnover: As more and more players enter the NCAA’s transfer portal each year, the process of stocking college football rosters is starting to resemble the way NFL teams approach free agency.
“College football has changed dramatically over the last five years,” Franklin said, “and the reality is, whether you like it, whether you agree with it, whether it’s what you’re used to or not, you have to embrace it. You have to embrace it, you have to move forward. You have to understand what the current model is and you’ve got to study it in detail and you’ve got to evolve.
“And that’s kind of where we’re at. This is college football. It’s not going to go back to the way it was. It’s not.”
Excited about Jahan Dotson: Franklin couldn’t be more pleased that leading wide receiver Jahan Dotson, the former Nazareth star, chose to come back for his senior season instead of cashing in on a breakout season in which he finished with team highs in catches (52), yards (884) and TD receptions (8) to go with eight punt returns for a 24.6 average.
“I feel like I’ve got a really good relationship with Jahan and with his mom and dad,” Franklin said, “and we had some very direct, honest, transparent conversations with just the three of us that they wanted to have. And I thought that went well.
“At the end of the day, I’m going to support whatever decisions these guys make. I want to make sure that they make an educated decision and have as much information to be able to do that. But having Jahan back, I think, is really important for us and it gives us a really good building block.”
Contingency plans: Whatever the NCAA and/or the state of Pennsylvania decides about the viability of spring football, Penn State will adjust.
For now, Franklin is hoping and planning for it to be full speed ahead. If not, there’s a plan for that too.
“Nobody has really come out and said it either way,” Franklin said. “And I guess what I’m saying is, what 2020 has taught me and I think has taught us all is that you’re going to have to be prepared for what comes, especially when you’re dealing with a pandemic.
“I think obviously after going through a season. It’s easier to say that we can pull off a spring ball and do it the right way after already being through a season. But no one has said anything either way.”
So he’s learned not to get his hopes up.
“We’re moving ahead and prepared and planning on doing it all,” Franklin added. “... This has taught me a valuable lesson that we’re going to have to be prepared for whatever comes and we’re going to have to be flexible.”