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How the Next 50 Days Will Shape the Future of Penn State Football

by on November 26, 2017 8:00 PM

A new assistant coach. (Or more?)

A new, early signing date. (Penn State's incoming class ranks No. 2 nationally.) 

Roster moves?

Awards galore.

Plans for the pros.

And Bowl Game, Bowl Game, Bowl Game.

Over the next 50 days, this is what is on a rather large plate for James Franklin and Penn State, on a roll again after shelling Maryland, 66-3.

Since Oct. 1, 2016, Penn State is 19-3 — with the three losses by a combined seven points. Over that same time, Penn State has outscored its opponents by a 909 to 411 margin.

That's quite a run. Throw in the rebuild that was necessary after the scandal, and it's pretty stunning.

What happens in the next 7 weeks will greatly impact whether James and the Nittany Lions can keep it going, on both a short- and long-term basis.

Here is what is on deck:

BOWLING

Match-ups will be announced next Sunday. After the College Football Playoff committee picks its final four, the big bowls will do their pairings based on CFP rankings and other factors. Various predictors have Penn State going to one of the following (all games are on ESPN):

Cotton Bowl, Arlington, Texas — 8:30 p.m., Friday, Dec. 29

Fiesta Bowl, Glendale, Ariz. — 4 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 30

Orange Bowl, Miami — 8 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 30

Peach Bowl, Atlanta — 12:30 p.m., Monday, Jan. 1

Good to know: The Orange Bowl gets the top non-CFP non-champions from the ACC and the Big Ten/SEC/Notre Dame. All of the other selections are based on the committee's direction. Ohio State went to Fiesta Bowl last year, so a return trip isn't likely. Notre Dame's loss to Stanford dropped it from the New Year's Six. A Penn State vs. USC rematch (in the Fiesta?) is attractive to some, but not to others.

EARLY SIGNING DATE 

The date that high school seniors may sign an official letter of intent has been moved up. Now, they may officially commit to as early as early as Wednesday-Friday, Dec. 20-22. The "old" signing date — Feb. 7 in 2018 — remains in place. Right now, according to Blue White Illustrated and its Rivals.com network, the Nittany Lions have 22 verbal commits and rank No. 2 in the national recruiting rankings, behind Ohio State. Check out both lists here, on BWI's website.

Ryan Snyder of BWI is all things Penn State recruiting. He's my go-to guy for deciphering and analyzing recruiting. Here's his take, as up-to-date as Sunday afternoon:

"As of now, it looks like Penn State will take three more players in its Class of 2018. It's become clear that the staff is prioritizing the defensive line, as defensive tackle Tyreke Smith, as well as defensive ends Micah Parsons and Jayson Oweh, sit near the top of the staff's board. Wide receiver Solomon Enis and offensive lineman Rasheed Walker are also still in the mix, but it feels as if Enis is ahead of Walker now if the staff decides to add someone that doesn't play on the defensive front. 

"Penn State sits in a good position with all of its top remaining players. Oweh just took his official visit to PSU for the Nebraska game and he admitted shortly after that the Lions held an edge on the competition. He's also still considering Michigan, Notre Dame and Ohio State. Micah Parsons is expected to take his official visit to Penn State in a few weeks, Dec. 8-10. Tyreke Smith will also be on campus that weekend, as will most of the players that have already committed to the Lions. Parsons will make his decision on Dec. 20, the first day of the early signing period, while Smith and Oweh are expected to announce at the Under Armour All-America Game on Jan. 4.

"PSU currently sits at No. 2 in the Rivals.com team rankings, but schools like Miami, Georgia, Texas, Oklahoma and Notre Dame aren't far behind. They also have fewer players committed at the moment, so as they add additional commitments a few of those teams could surpass Penn State.

"The Lions are also going to add some solid players, but it may be tough to finish in the top three. With that said, this should be the staff's best recruiting class since taking over in 2014. They'll likely finish somewhere right around the top five, which is excellent. Since the start of sites like Rivals.com, Penn State's best class-ever was the 2006 class, which finished No. 6 overall. This class will probably finish somewhere in that range."

ADDING A 10TH ASSISTANT

On Tuesday, Jan. 9, FBS football teams will be permitted to hire a 10th full-time, on the-field assistant coach. Each school now has nine — Penn State has four for defense, five for offense — plus a cadre of grad assistants and quality control. Penn State included.

This position is different. It is for a bona fide coach, who can be hands on while on the practice field, not just observe, advise, "consult" on player use and development, do film breakdown, game-planning and the like.

Penn State could very well have that new assistant on staff. Franklin quietly added Larry Lewis as a consultant in the off-season. Lewis was the head coach at Idaho State in 1999 when Franklin was the wide receivers coach there. Lewis has been a college coach since 1981. Most recently, Lewis was the special teams coordinator and running backs coach at Virginia. At UVA in 2015, Lewis’ punt returns unit was ranked No. 6 in the country. Prior to that, he was special teams coach at Colorado State and Nevada, where Khald Wooten was once the nation’s No. 4 punt returner, at 15.1 yards per return.

Also currently serving as consultants on the Penn State staff — both with special teams backgrounds — are Sam Williams and Phil Galiano.

Early in his tenure at Franklin hired Williams to be the special teams/recruiting assistant for quality control. Williams worked with Franklin at Vandy and also coached special teams as a grad assistant at Rutgers. Williams had a big hand in drawing up that epic blocked field goal by Marcus Allen in the 2016 Ohio State game.

In late winter 2017, Franklin also hired former Rutgers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers assistant Phil Galiano as a defensive consultant. Galiano has an extensive background with special teams as well. Galiano has been in coaching for 15 years and had three separate stints at Rutgers, most recently as a special teams and tight ends coach. He spent 2012-2013 in the NFL as the Bucs' special teams coach, when former Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano left Rutgers to be the head coach in Tampa Bay. (Schiano, fired by Tampa Bay after the 2013 season, is in his second year as associate head and co-defensive coordinator at Ohio State.)

Here is what Franklin has said in the past about the addition of that 10th assistant:

"What I think a lot of people will do is they'll probably go two directions," he said lst spring, when the rule was being approved. "You go the NFL model, where you go with a special teams coordinator. Instead of having a special teams coordinator that coaches a position and coordinates special teams, you have a special teams coordinator and that's his main responsibility. He may help out with another position, but that's his main responsibility.

"Or, the other thing you can always do — like anything in life — you just go best available. So you may say my model is to go with a special teams coordinator, but Coach X is available and wants to come and he's just so experienced and so valuable that you go with that guy as well. There's two different models.

"I'm probably leaning more towards a special teams coordinator that would help out on defense, because typically with nine coaches, you have five on offense and four on defense (with) one of those offensive coaches splitting time as a special teams coordinator. Putting a special teams coordinator on the defensive side of the ball as well, those guys would be like co-coordinators and even out your coaches five and five."

ROSTER MOVES - PLAYERS

We won't spend a lot of time discussing Saquon Barkley's future. Many experts have him as the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft. As a junior academically with another year eligibility remaining, Barkley has until Jan. 15 (50 days from now) to officially declare for the draft. The NFL sends a list of players who are accepted into the draft to all its clubs on Jan. 19.

Good to know: In 2016, the No., 1 pick in the draft, Myles Garrett, got a $20.2 million signing bonus. That's real, upfront money he doesn't have to give back.  The No. 4 pick, Leonard Fournette, was the first running back selected. He got a $17.8 signing bonus. All the details here.

Also good to know: Do-Everything Tommy Stevens will get his degree after spring semester, and will have two years of eligibility remaining. If by chance Joe Moorhead would leave, Stevens would be a good plug-and-play for any new installation of the RPO.

Linebacker Manny Bowen was held out of the last three games of the regular season; the Lions will already be thinner at LB next year, with the departure of vets Jason Cabinda and Brandon Smith. When asked last Tuesday about his linebacking depth, Franklin left Bowen off the list; that's not to say Bowen is gone by any stretch of the imagination, but you can tell the PSU coaches are clearly tired of Manny being Manny. Torrence Brown was injured early in the season and was greatly missed at defensive end as the season wore on. His medical status has not been addressed.

ROSTER MOVES - COACHES

Debating Joe Moorhead's future at Penn State has been a popular parlor game for over a year. We won't do that here, other than to say that he was a hot prospect last year — Temple, for instance, wanted him — and will be sure to draw some interest this year.

It would not be a surprise if schools outside the northeastern footprint, including the SEC, have already expressed in Moorhead's availability.

And why not? In 2105, Penn State averaged 23.2 points per game. In 2016, JoeMo's first season as QB coach and offensive coordinator, the Nittany Lions averaged 37.6 points. And in 2017, they averaged 41.6 points.

Moorhead has said, several times, a move would have to make sense "personally and professionally." A true family guy who helps coach his sons' baseball teams in the summer, you should take him at his word. Still, any move to HC for JoeMo comes with a huge guaranteed jump in salary.

If he does go, there are likely two assistants on staff who could ascend to the play-caller's role. Offensive line coach Matt Limegrover was an offensive coordinator for over 15 years, at Chicago, Southern Illinois, Northern Illinois and Minnesota. He balanced those duties with coaching the O-line, although after he arrived at Penn State in January 2016 he said that doing both came with some heavy burdens. There is still development to do along the O-line, and with five starting players, Limegrover already has the highest assistant coach-to-player ratio of anyone.

Tight ends coach Ricky Rahne has been with Franklin a long time, and has coached the PSU QBs. A former record-setting quarterback at Cornell, Rahne has said that some day he aspires to be an O-coordinator.

Externally, many folks point to Andrew Breiner, who learned the RPO under Moorhead at Fordham, then succeeded him as head coach, as a possible successor. But that sounds too derivative, and besides, Fordham is 4-7 this year and averaging only 21.9 points per game.

Instead, think along the lines of a James Perry. As the former offensive coordinator at Princeton, he was the architect of a very successful 2 QB-in-the-backfield offense that includes elements Penn State has incorporated. Which makes sense, since when Moorhead was at Fordham he and his staff met with Perry and Princeton's staff. Perry became head coach this year at Bryant, and over the past three games his team has scored 128 points. (His brother John is Bill O'Brien's wide receivers coach with the Houston Texans.)

AWARDS SEASON

Barkley and senior tight end Mike Gesicki have been selected as finalists for national awards. Barkley is among the finalists for the Maxwell Award and the Doak Walker Award, while Gesicki is a finalist for the Mackey Award. The winners of the honors will be announced at the ESPN Home Depot College Football Award Show in Atlanta on Thursday, Dec. 7. No news on whether either will attend.

Barkley will officially find out on Monday, Dec. 4 whether he is invited to New York City to be part of the Heisman Trophy festivities. The 2017 winner be announced a few minutes before 9 p.m., on Saturday, Dec. 9.

The next day, on Sunday, Dec. 10, the State College Quarterback Club will hold its annual Penn State Football banquet. Several team awards are handed out, including most valuable player, and departing seniors are honored.

PRO PREPARATION

Speaking of departing seniors, several current players are making plans behind-the-scenes for their NFL Draft preparation. Traditionally, many of the top prospects go directly from the bowl game location to training sites across the country to train for the NFL Combine and NFL Draft.

It could be a very large group, led by Gesicki, Cabinda, safety Marcus Allen, wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton, offensive lineman Brendan Mahon, cornerbacks Christian Campbell and Grant Haley, and defensive linemen Parker Cothren and Curtis Cothran.

The NFL Combine will be held Feb. 27-March 5, 2018 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

The NFL Draft will be held April 26-28, 2018, at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. That's also the site of the Cotton Bowl. So, for at least one Penn Stater, the draft could represent the second trip to Jerry's World in four months.



Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for StateCollege.com since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/PSUPoorman. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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