James Franklin has been in this position before, marched into bowl season with a gaping hole in his offensive coaching staff and plenty of questions on how he plans to plug it.
This happened in 2015, and Franklin put the stopper in just as quickly. Just a few weeks after he fired John Donovan, he hired Joe Moorhead.
It happened again in 2017, and Franklin acted fast one more time. Just days after Moorhead moved on to become Mississippi State’s head coach, Franklin promoted Ricky Rahne — his longtime confidant and tight ends coach — to replace him.
On Dec. 9, Rahne left Penn State’s offensive coordinator post vacant for the third time in five seasons when he accepted the head coaching position at Old Dominion. But it sure looks like Franklin is going to bide his time before coming to a conclusion on who comes in to replace him. Speaking Friday for the first time on Rahne’s departure during Penn State’s Cotton Bowl media day at Beaver Stadium, Franklin talked mostly in contingencies.
►His tight ends coach, Tyler Bowen, will act as offensive coordinator in Saturday’s Cotton Bowl Classic against No. 17 Memphis at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
►Kirk Campbell, a member of the recruiting staff who doubled as an assistant quarterbacks coach, will be the interim quarterbacks coach Saturday.
►Jeff Carpenter, an analyst, will work as a graduate assistant, filling in for Mark Dupuis, the highly regarded GA who announced he is joining Rahne’s staff at Old Dominion.
This was all expected, of course. Also expected: Franklin said Bowen and other members of the staff will be considered for the full-time post.
In-house hire seems unlikely: That said, it sounds like the man who will take Rahne’s job isn’t working at Penn State right now.
“Obviously, I’ve been talking to a lot of different people and been doing a lot of different studies from a data perspective of guys that have called the game and what their numbers have been like, and I’ve watched a bunch of tape,” Franklin said. “The reality is, this obviously is an important hire.”
That means, he has to get it right.
Giving some hints: Franklin didn’t mention any candidates’ names — unless you count eliminating “Johnny Hindsight,” the guy down at the local sports bar who calls the plays after they’ve already been made, as a contender — but he did give some hints about some of the traits the new person will have to possess.
These, again, are hardly surprising. It’s going to be someone with play-calling experience. Someone who will blend in with how Penn State is currently built offensively and have the chops to keep the offense relatively similar to how it has been the last four years, from the verbiage used to the adoption of the principles developed under Moorhead and Rahne.
It’s going to be someone, Franklin all but confirmed, who is currently a coordinator in the college or NFL ranks.
That type of experienced, innovative guy is worth striving for, but he’s also going to take some time to land.
Searching for dominance in 2020: Next season is not one where Penn State is supposed to be building. It’s one in which Penn State is hoping to be dominant. It is returning its top two quarterbacks, four running backs who saw significant time in 2019, a superstar tight end, four starters along the offensive line and a good chunk of a defense that, statistically, took a major step forward this season. The Nittany Lions snuck in and won the Big Ten championship in 2016 and were a win over Ohio State away from sneaking in and playing for it this season.
There will be no sneaking in next season, and the same kind of record in 2020 that they had in 2019 will probably be considered a bit of a disappointment for the Nittany Lions. As they inch toward the new year, the biggest question mark surrounding the program is who will be calling the offensive plays.
Hit a home run on this hire, like he did after the 2015 season with Moorhead, and Franklin will put his team into title contention.
Hit a single — and there is plenty of debate whether Rahne was the type of play-caller who could have taken the Nittany Lions to the promised land — and that goal doesn’t exactly get much closer.
Biggest decision of Franklin's tenure: For Penn State, coming off three New Year’s 6 bowls in four years and the fact it has been knocking on the door for a while, this has all the earmarks of the biggest decision in Franklin’s tenure.
It has to be the right move, and anything worth doing right is worth giving time.