Penn State football program springs back into action amid positivity and uncertainty

NUBYJAS WILBORN
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (TNS)
Penn State head coach James Franklin watches from the sideline during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Michigan, Saturday, Nov. 28, 2020, in Ann Arbor, Mich. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

There was a mix of positivity and uncertainty on Monday when Penn State football coach James Franklin spoke to reporters.

Let's start with the good news: The Nittany Lions began spring football on Monday after Franklin addressed reporters.

It's not a secret that Franklin wasn't happy with not having spring football last year. He regularly mentioned the inequity of having the two weeks of practice wiped away because of COVID-19 protocols.

Some schools completed their spring practices or at least got some practices in before the coronavirus shutdowns. Penn State didn't have any. Not having spring football wasn't the only reason for last year's shocking 0-5 start, but it didn't help.

I'm always raring to go and motivated. Last year was an unbelievable opportunity to grow and learn and be challenged in a way that we've never been challenged before," Franklin told reporters via Zoom. "I think people are motivated. I wouldn't necessarily say it's a chip on the shoulder or anything like that, but there were tremendous lessons to be learned."

A Blue-White game? The Nittany Lions already completed a series of winter workouts heading into Monday's session. Penn State is allowed 15 practices by NCAA rules. But now here comes the uncertainty. Typically, the final practice would be the Blue-White game.

A large number of fans are clamoring for a spring game. The restaurant and hotel industry would love the boost in traffic. But is it possible with a world trying to recover from the devastation of COVID-19?

"There are some discussions right now going on with that at the university level, with our administration, as well as the administration on campus," Franklin said. "We are making sure we're all on the same page. Our entire focus is on: What can we do to best position us for next year? We want to try to get back as close to normal as we possibly can for next season. A lot of things are trending in that direction, nationally as well as within our state."

Franklin has to be publicly non-committal on the spring game. It'd be unwise to promise something that isn't in his control. His subsequent comments about how the Nittany Lions would move forward as if there weren't a spring game could lend insight into if there will be a Blue-White game after all.

"In some ways, a final practice or final scrimmage, however you want to put it, a lot of times those things in such a public setting like that is pretty vanilla," Franklin said. "If we didn't have a spring game, we would have a proper 15th practice to put everything out there from an evaluation standpoint.

"There are still some conversations that are still being worked through. We hope to make an announcement here sooner rather than later."

Who's the leading man? Franklin was also non-committal on the status of the quarterback situation heading into spring practice. Sean Clifford is the returning starter. Christian Veilleux and Ta'Quan Roberson are seeking to unseat Clifford as the starter. Last spring, this wouldn't be a conversation. But a lot has happened between coming off a Cotton Bowl win and getting benched during an 0-5 start.

"Where we were coming into last season and where we are coming into this season is different. But it also creates a tremendous opportunity," Franklin said about Clifford. "And I think that's how Sean is approaching it in a lot of different ways. I think Sean's motivated, but he's always motivated."

Clifford might also be motivated by Franklin saying he's open to finding a quarterback in the transfer portal.

"We're open to the topic. We're open to discussing it," Franklin said. "We've got to make sure that we're bringing the right person in here, not only from an academic fit but from a cultural fit and also from a competitive perspective.

"So we're not just going to bring somebody in to bring somebody in. We got to make sure that it all makes sense and everything's been communicated and understood."

Sometimes head coaches, including Franklin, speak in parables. Coaches do this because they don't want to hurt any feelings. Franklin broke that rule given the quarterback situation. Penn State's offense was dreadful more often than not last year. Franklin knows it can't happen again. Everyone is on notice.

"Come to the end of spring. We'd like to have a pretty good idea of who our first-team, second-team, and third-team quarterbacks are," Franklin said.

Let's pause here. Franklin is saying that Clifford needs to step up during these practices. He's also acknowledging that three quarterbacks aren't enough for an effective program.

"Do we feel like we need to go out and bring another guy in?" Franklin pondered out loud. "Because you'd like to be at five scholarship quarterbacks all the time. I think you can get away with four, but three gets a little dicey."