Penn State's James Franklin opens up about QBs, recruiting, transparency, Yurcich

NUBYJAS WILBORN
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (TNS)
Penn State head football coach James Franklin.

Penn State coach James Franklin knows there's no way to ease into starting the season with a road game against Wisconsin, followed by a home opener against Ball State and a rare visit to University Park for Auburn.

Like most Americans, the 49-year-old wants to avoid anything resembling a disastrous 2020 by taking the lessons forward. His team struggled to adapt to opt-outs, injuries and misfortune while playing football in primarily empty stadiums.

Saturday night with Ohio State entering Beaver Stadium doesn't quite hit the same when there are only 1,000 people in the crowd. And creating energy isn't easy when you're 0-1 off a rough loss against Indiana without fans.

"A lot of people felt bad for the seniors, but at least the seniors had memories and experiences to hold onto, and the freshmen, it was no fun," Franklin told the Post-Gazette on Friday via Zoom. "It was school online. It was football. No games. It was being quarantined. It was not going out Saturday night and enjoying your time with your buddies.

"So for our freshmen to be able to experience it, it's special. I've been doing this for a long time, I think like 26 years now, and there are very few places like it."

Disappointing 2020: Preseason polls viewed the Nittany Lions as a top-10 team before the 2020 squad wound up 4-5 after an 0-5 start. Sean Clifford's performance in the 2020 Cotton Bowl against Memphis and the 11-win season upped expectations for fans hungry for a national championship.

Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford.

Clifford threw nine interceptions and struggled with accuracy. Maybe it was a missed connection with offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca. Whatever it was, Franklin still believes in Clifford.

"With Sean, we won 11 games two years ago. Cotton Bowl win," he said. "Sean did some really good things. Going into last year before all the chaos hit, he was respected as one of the better quarterbacks in the Big Ten and one of the better quarterbacks in the country. So I think last year will be a learning experience for him like it was for all of us."

Franklin broke down why he doesn't want to totally forget 2020's harsh lessons.

"I learned a tremendous amount about our program, about our guys, about myself during that season," Franklin said. "I want to take every experience, whether it's positive or negative, and grow from it. If there are not aspects of what we went through last year that we learned from and we grew from, then we missed out on an opportunity and there was plenty to learn from. I'm not somebody that takes things for granted. But I will tell you last year kind of reinforced it. We're excited, waking up and being appreciative of each day."

Franklin also discussed his plans to address the quarterback situation and several other topics during the chat.

On the quarterbacks: "We're looking at the transfer portal, as well. But it's got to be the right fit. Some schools are pretty aggressive, and they just kind of throw offers out again. But we're going to do a lot of digging. We're going to watch a lot of tape. We're going to ask a lot of questions, not of the college that they're at, but also the high school they went to, and make sure it's the right fit of who we're bringing in. But yeah, we're going to keep our eyes open, and if the right situation's out there that makes us better, we're going to do it."

On the fairness of criticism about Penn State not landing a top 10 in-state recruit in the latest class: "It's always fair to have conversations like that. It's always fair to challenge. It's more about who did we offer and who did we get, and who did we offer and not get because a lot of times, our rankings are very different than the recruiting services' rankings. But yeah, I think that's a fair conversation. There's going to be years like we've done for a long time where we get the guys in the state that we want, and there's going to be some guys that we lose, and some are going to be for reasons that maybe we could've done some things a little bit better and sometimes it's going to be you do everything right and it's just not meant to be."

On transparency: "We want to be as honest and as transparent as we possibly can with recruits. But, sometimes, by taking that approach, people have felt like we've been slow. 'How come you're just offering us now?' We're trying to be as honest and truthful as we possibly can be. But that creates some challenges, and that's always the case in your own state of how you handle those things. Because it's easy for somebody from seven states away to throw an offer out, and if the kid tries to commit and they don't take him, it's not a big deal. But we don't operate like that."

On hiring Mike Yurcich as offensive coordinator: "I track successful coaches nationwide, and then I put a little asterisk next to the guys that are either from the region or specifically from the state of Pennsylvania, either as this is where they were born and raised or this is where they went to college in the state of Pennsylvania. Mike's a guy that I was aware of for a long time. He made the jump from Shippensburg to Oklahoma State, which is a very unusual jump. On top of that, I'm pretty close with Mike Gundy. We both coached together at the University of Maryland, so we go way back. That helped, as well. But yeah, when we had an opportunity to get involved with Mike a few years ago, it didn't work out for several reasons. And then, when it looked like he was available again, we were able to kind of get into some more significant conversations to get him here."