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Franklin's Ready for 2014

by and on August 09, 2014 3:45 PM

First and foremost, James Franklin is a football coach, and in less than three weeks he will finally take to the sidelines for the first time as the head coach at Penn State.

Hired in February to replace Bill O'Brien, Franklin has been a whirlwind.

He is seemingly everywhere, talking up the university, its academic and athletic programs, and especially its football program.

He has already proven to be an unabashed supporter of everything about Penn State, a staunch family man, a skillful motivator, and a relentless recruiter.

Now it's time to play some football.

Franklin opened his first pre-season camp after this year's annual Media Day on Monday afternoon, and now the focus has switched squarely onto the Nittany Lions' performance on the field.

"Obviously, very exciting," Franklin said at the start of his press conference. "It's been seven months since we arrived, and we've gotten a lot of work done in a short period of time. It's exciting to get going, working with these guys day in and day out.

"The staff has done a great job of preparing. The players have been unbelievable. We are going to prepare for Central Florida, and last night I addressed the team that it will be here before we know it.

"Our focus right now is on becoming the best Penn State we can be, but there will come a point, about two weeks into camp, where we will flip the switch and start game preparation for Central Florida."

All Penn State fans know about the constraints under which the football team has been working. The scholarship limits and bowl ban are still in effect, albeit somewhat eased by the NCAA last fall. The team will have 10 fewer scholarship players than any team it plays, and the Lions will have to rely on many young and inexperienced players — probably even some true freshmen and walk-ons — to supply depth to the 15 returning starters and 38 lettermen.

"What is interesting is that there are similarities (with his first Vanderbilt camp)," Franklin said, "from a depth perspective but for different reasons. The same problem. One of the things different at Penn State is that here we have a walk-on tryout and 175 guys show up. That creates opportunities. Numbers are a powerful thing, just like 107,000 people in the stadium is a powerful tool, having 175 guys show up for a tryout allows us to be really selective.

"We all know there are walk-ons all over the country who have had huge impacts and even gone on to play in the NFL, so we're excited about the effects those guys are going to have on our program."

Franklin and his assistants also addressed the two areas that have the most pressing needs going into the 2014 season — offensive line and wide receiver.

The offensive line seems especially critical. Sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg needs protection as well as time to throw, and running backs Bill Belton, Zach Zwinak, and Akeel Lynch need room to run. And that all begins with the O-line.

"I don't know if I feel any better or any worse (about the offensive line)," Franklin said. "We have some guys who have gotten bigger and stronger. I do think the fact that we have a defensive line that we have confidence in is going to be helpful because iron sharpens iron.

"They are going out there every day against what we think is a quality defensive line and it will show us where we're at. I do feel really good now in terms of what we are going to do calling the offense. We have a really experienced offensive line coach, and that is helpful.

"We have little bit better depth at center and guard, I think, than we do at tackle. That will be the challenge."

At wide receiver, it will be all about replacing the production of Allen Robinson, who was arguably the best receiver in the Big Ten the past two seasons.

"I actually think the make-up for what we lost will come from the tight ends," Franklin said. "That's where we have the most veteran players, and that's where we have the most experience and depth.

"I am excited about those young guys (wide receivers), but that's what it is right now. It's all based on what they did in high school and what they did when they arrived on campus, and what the other players are saying about them.

"Right now, it's purely just excitement based on potential. We'll see how things play out, but right now that production will have to come from the receivers returning and the tight ends."

The team, however, is not without its strong suits. Hackenberg, of course, Belton, Zwinak, Lynch, the defense in general (especially the D-line and backfield), the tight ends, and improved team speed. According to Franklin, 11 players run a sub-4.5 forty.

There will be a new punter, with the competition there crowded and fierce, and Sam Ficken returns as kicker, although he has competitors as well. As far as special teams in general -- a glaring area of weakness in 2013 — Franklin said that "everyone on the team" will have roles to play on those units.

So, in just a couple of weeks, it will be time to play. We will have to see if the enthusiasm and confidence that Franklin, his staff, and his team have shown so far will carry on to the field.

Central Florida counted as one of the Nittany Lions' losses last season, so it looks like we will begin to find that out what kind of talent Franklin's team has right away.

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This story was produced by the staff at the Centre County Gazette. It was re-published with permission. The Centre County Gazette is a weekly publication, available at many locations around Centre County every Thursday morning.

Pat Rothdeutsch covers Penn State football for The Centre County Gazette. Email him at [email protected]
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