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Penn State Football: A Dozen Questions for James Franklin

by on February 03, 2019 5:15 PM

It’s already a new era of Penn State football.

James Franklin has moved on.

As have the 69 players who were on the Nittany Lions’ official roster for the 2018 Fiesta Bowl a little more than a year ago.

(Not to mention a handful of assistant coaches.)

Of that 120-man roster, only 51 remain from the core of a group that went on a 21-5 tear that included a Big Ten title. 

Of course, constant turnover is the nature of college sports.

Still, it’s the kind of rapid flipping that we usually see on HGTV, not at PSU in Lasch. Not even in the sanction era. It’s a lot. Too many? We’ll see.

The 2018 season is long past, as is the Nittany Lions’ 5-4 semi-limp to the finish line, including an uninspiring 27-24 loss to Kentucky in the Citrus Bowl, Penn State’s third loss against four Top 25 foes last season, which they finished 9-4.

It’s really, already, Chapter 3 in The Book of James. Back-to-back 7-6’s in 2014-15. Then the Trace Years. And now, we are coming out on the other side of the transfer portal. The reboot of Penn State football has already started.

On Monday, 11 members of the Class of 2019 begin their fifth week of classes as Penn State freshmen. Eight more are signed. And on the second signing day of the academic year this Wednesday, Franklin will add at least two more signees to that group. They’ll complement the 23 recruits from the fifth-ranked Class of 2018 and the 21 recruits in the 10th-ranked Class of 2017.

In all, that's new 65 new players on scholarships in pretty short order (although four from the Class of 2017 have already departed U.P.).

Plus, there are three high school juniors and one high school sophomore who have already committed to play football at Penn State.

Dont’e Thornton, a wide receiver from Baltimore, is that sophomore. Over the weekend, he promised to Franklin and his own 1,100-plus Twitter followers that 23 months later, in December 2020, he will sign on the letter-of-intent dotted line and play football for Penn State. Thornton — who goes the nickname and embraces the imagery of “The Joker” of Batman infamy — would potentially play his first game on Sept. 4, 2021, vs. Wisconsin in Camp Randall Stadium in Madison.

Not that Franklin is going anywhere, but there’s no guarantee he’ll be the head coach that day or that the new PSU wide receiver coach Gerad Parker will be, either. Parker is Penn State’s third WR coach in the past 53 weeks.

PRESSER ON WEDNESDAY 

Wednesday is the second signing day of the cycle in college football. Franklin will wrap up his sixth set of recruiting classes. Penn State is currently ranked No. 10 nationally, according to Rivals.com. In Franklin’s time at Penn State (2014-19), his classes have ranked No. 24, 15, 21, 12, 5 and 10 — an average of 14.5 overall and a stellar 9.0 over the past three years. For the six years preceding that (2008-13), Penn State’s average rating was No. 35.

Franklin will hold his first press conference since the Citrus Bowl on Wednesday afternoon, ostensibly to cover the three new signees since December — Vilbert Smith, Joseph Appiah Darkwa and D’Von Ellis, who (quietly) signed with PSU in December but didn’t announce it until the Polynesian Bowl last month.

But we’ll hear from Franklin about much more.

The past month has been Franklin’s busiest since January 2014, when he was hired and in the span of a few weeks brought most of his Vanderbilt staff to Penn State and secured his first recruiting class.

So, we are likely to his take on what’s transpired since he left Orlando. Beyond recruiting, expect another dozen questions about:

1. Firing one wide receiver coach (David Corley) and hiring another (Parker).

2. Leaving his special teams leadership intact, even though those units got worse in six key areas in 2018, while improving in two. (Details here.) Not to mention a sour Citrus experience.

3. Five players with eligibility declaring early for the NFL Draft.

4. A whole host of players deciding to transfer — some of them with degrees in hand and others without — and is that a signal of any problems within the program.

5. Lamont Wade making his way back after a trip in the transfer portal.

6. Former long-time assistant coach Josh Gattis landing at Michigan, where he will be offensive coordinator for Jim Harbaugh, who is 3-1 against Franklin.

7. The ongoing Lasch Building renovations, including the addition of a sleeping room for the players.

8. The contract extension of athletic director Sandy Barbour, and the absence of any announcement as to who will replace departed deputy AD Phil Esten, the Penn State athletics administrator Franklin reported to on a daily basis.

9. A dearth of experience on the Nittany Lions’ offensive line, which features only 11 players on scholarship (not counting C.J. Thorpe) and veering toward the lack-of-depth/experience region that plagued Penn State in Franklin’s early years, when he frequently lamented having only nine O-linemen on scholarship.

10. Where PSU stands in overall scholarships; most estimates have them at about 76 right now (not counting any new signees or giving Notre Dame RB transfer C.J. Holmes a scholie or any future grad transfers), with an allowable NCAA limit of 85.

11. The addition of Ohio to Penn State’s schedule for 2022 — the last year of Franklin’s current contract — and Massachusetts to its 2023 schedule.

12. Fifth-year quarterback Tommy Stevens and his status, which remains a bit of a mystery. Stevens did not make the trip to the Citrus Bowl, an announcement Franklin made with little fanfare to a very small group of reporters after Penn State arrived in Orlando.

At the time, Franklin said, “Tommy had an injury about the midpoint of the season you guys weren’t aware of. We had a lot of discussions about when was the right time to have the surgery. Tommy’s family and the staff decided the best time to have the surgery would be after his academics were finished (and he was) through the season. He was able to do that and now this will allow him to hopefully be a full-go for spring ball.

Stevens’ health and role will be paramount in 2019. Penn State’s season-opener on Aug. 30 against Idaho (4-7 in 2018) will be the first contest of Franklin’s 66-game tenure as Penn State’s head coach that the starting QB will not be Christian Hackenberg or Trace McSorley.

And as for as much as it will be a new-look Nittany Lions squad in 2019, there’s no singular player that Franklin should know better than Stevens. That’s because Stevens, who arrived on campus on January 2015, has been with Franklin longer than any other current player.

Which means even the old will be new in 2019.



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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