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Penn State Football and James Franklin: Who Plays, Who Stays and How the Decisions are Connected

by on December 01, 2019 5:00 PM

You’re James Franklin. 

A surprisingly difficult 27-6 victory over Rutgers is in hand. At last.

Thanks to a fumble recovery by Tyler Rudolph on your kickoff team, your offense is about to take the field at the Rutgers 6-yard line, with 310 seconds left in the game, the regular season and the Beaver Stadium career of your seniors.

Who do you insert at quarterback:

First-time starter and battle-weary Will Levis — with 36 runs and nine sacks in his last six quarters?

Freshmen T’aQuan Roberson or Michael Johnson Jr., neither of whom has taken a real-game snap in 2019?

Or savvy sideline-signal caller Michael Shuster, the unseen Super Glue of the Penn State quarterback room who is in the waning moments of his final game on Senior Day?

Franklin must decide, and it’s not about winning the game.

Do you let Levis start what he finished, or give the frosh their first taste of big-time football — and, if so, which one do you pick? Or do you give Shuster a big send-off for all he’s done over the past four years.

And, BTW, you do have to consider the ramifications of The Transfer Portal. Picking one frosh over another, what with teenagers being teenagers, may give an intended push out the door for the other.

Relationships matter. Watching on from the Penn State sideline are former Nittany Lions Jarvis Miller and Mark Allen, who graduated last year and transferred to UMass and Duquesne, respectively, and had strong finishes to their college careers. (Miller was No. 4 at UMass in tackles, with 60; Allen ran for 689 yards and averaged 119 all-purpose yards per game.)

At Penn State, both were good students and high-character guys, Allen was part of the McSorley-Scott-Oruwariye posse, Miller is godfather to Saquon Barkley’s daughter. Their relationships with Franklin and the program survived their transfers and they were welcomed back on Saturday with open arms.

Also on the sidelines is Ricky Slade, who entered Penn State’s season as the No. 1 running back. For that final drive against the Scarlet Knights, he was about to go back in after limited duty for much of the day. No matter: On Sunday afternoon, Slade posted an image of himself ringing the Penn State victory bell on Instagram, with the note, "A CHAMPION is simply someone who did NOT give up when they wanted to. Till next year beaver."

Not on the sidelines is redshirt sophomore Justin Shorter, who was recently supplanted by senior walk-on Dan Chisena as a starting wide receiver and in the past week entered the Transfer Portal and departed — for now, at least — Penn State. Perhaps a few others, and not just Slade, are thinking they might follow Shorter.

THE (PENN) STATE OF FOOTBALL

Late-game decisions like the one facing Franklin at quarterback speak to the state of college football. Players now have the right to leave if they are dissatisfied — a move I applaud; their rights should be the same as all college students.

But the situation puts coaches like Franklin in a precarious position, as even their mop-up decisions are scrutinized not only by the player but also by his parents, the media and potential schools who hope to reap the transfer rewards.

Of course, Franklin is a big boy, with a big $6 million annual paycheck, so we shed no tears for his tough decision.

James picks Roberson.

It doesn't go so well. A pair of runs for three and then zero yards by Slade get the Nittany Lions to a third-and-goal at the 3. Roberson runs once (losing a yard), then on fourth down he throws a pass intended for Chisena out of the corner of the end zone.

These are the decisions that try head coach’s souls. (Not the fade, though that may still cause offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne and some others consternation.)

Rather, the selection of the QB: Head vs. heart. Past vs. future.

Franklin The Builder vs. Franklin The Relationship Guy.

There is no book on what the right thing is to do. In this case, you write your own script.

Franklin went with Roberson, a New Jersey native, against the State University of New Jersey. Was it the right decision? Who knows.

WHO IS MICHAEL SHUSTER?

After the game, I did ask Franklin why Shuster — clearly a favorite of the head coach — didn’t get the call on that last drive. It didn’t affect the final outcome, but I thought it went to the heart of the matter of what is in Franklin’s heart.

For context and background, this is what Franklin said about Shuster at Penn State’s media day in August:

“I do want to mention a guy named Shuster. He has been fantastic,” Franklin said. “He is a great leader in the quarterback room. He’s like having another coach. He’s great with the young guys. He’s great when it comes to game-planning. He’s a culture driver.”

Franklin doubled down a few weeks later, after Penn State played Idaho in the season-opener, when Shuster led a 7-play, 54-yard scoring drive powered by Nick Eury on Penn State’s final possession.

“Shuster just does a great job for us,” Franklin enthused. “He’s like having another coach. He takes a lot of pride in it. He’s been a fantastic student, a fantastic teammate. I’m a huge Shuster fan. He brings a lot of value to our organization.”

I agree. I met Shuster and his father Bob in the offseason at the Mr. PA Football Awards, when I made the trip to Harrisburg, to see Franklin deliver the keynote address and also in hopes of meeting Julian Fleming, the nation’s No. 1 high school wide receiver who was still considering Penn State. (I was impressed. Read my stories about Fleming here and here.)

Shuster, who interned with U.S. Congressman Kevin McCarthy, the House Majority Leader at the time, is contemplating a career in finance on Wall Street. I wrote about Shuster this summer:

We can’t underscore the presence of Shuster enough. By happenstance, I sat with him and his father at the Mr. PA Football Awards last winter — he is a former winner after throwing for 9,700 yards and 108 TDs QB at Camp Hill. He is a savvy, polished and mature walk-on. Among the Nittany Lion quarterbacks, Shuster has been on the squad the longest, since 2016. Shuster has great bloodlines: his maternal grandfather, Dick Hoak, played football at Penn State from 1956-60, then 10 seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Hoak was the longest-tenured coach in Steelers’ history, serving as the running backs coach from 1972-2007. Michael’s fraternal grandfather is legendary politician Bud Shuster, a member of Congress from 1973 to 2001 and was King of the Roads for Pennsylvania as chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Don’t take my word for it. Here’s what Levis had to say about his mentor after the Rutgers game:

“Mike, obviously, it was Senior Day for him, so I wanted to spend a lot of time with him,” Levis shared. “I really wanted him to know how appreciative I am of him and just being there for me.

"The first day I stepped on the field, he was there, answering any questions I might have. He understands his role on this team and with this offense. It’s to know this offense as well or better than anyone else, and to be the guy people can turn to. He’s always been that guy for me.” 

FRANKLIN AND BROWN

To his credit, in his post-game presser Franklin said that given the chance to make the decision over, he would pick Shuster. Props to James for saying so.

“Our plan was to go ‘victory’ and snap the ball and get all of those guys in there and end the game on those terms,” Franklin said. “There is also that fine line that we have some young players that we want to gain some experience as well. Bringing it up now that you say it, we probably should’ve. I think sometimes you have some plans, but as the game goes you start thinking in another direction — but we probably should’ve (inserted Shuster).”

This is not to criticize Franklin. (OK, not too much.)

Instead, it is to note how the Transfer Portal and the new era of player movement can color all decisions, on and off the field. Playing Chisena ahead of Shorter had to hasten Shorter’s exit. 

There are more examples. But when it comes to Slade, we need to appreciate Slade’s Instagram post and listen to what Journey Brown — who’s run for 391 yards and seven touchdowns in the last four games — has to say about his teammate.

Over the same past four games, Slade has four carries for 37 yards, in part having missed the Ohio State game due to a violation of team rules. Against Rutgers, Slade looked strong in limited action, and though he finished with a very good 36 yards in six carries, he also flashed a stellar 24-yard run that was truncated due to a penalty.

Brown’s insight into and empathy for Slade is critical here:

“Ricky has had what I want to say is a tough season,” Brown said on Saturday night. “He’s been trying to find himself. That (his carries against Rutgers) is just confidence for him. He needed that, just to get out there and get his feet back under him. That’s the Ricky Slade I know.

“I never stopped believing in him. I know a lot of people did and we don’t listen to outside stuff. But I have seen the stuff people say about my man and disregard it. I know the real Ricky Slade. When the opportunities come, he’ll prove that to people and he’ll continue to do what he does, which is to be Ricky Slade.”

Brown entered the 2019 season as No. 4 in the group of four RBs. He had just eight carries for 44 yards in 2018. And he didn’t play a lick in 2017. Sure, he has blazing PA state championship-winning 10.43 speed in the 100. And he hung 700 yards and 10 TDs on DuBois in high school.

But Slade and Cain and Ford had more stars than he did. Brown had spent the summer back home in Meadville on suspension, and was still dealing with the death of his grandmother during last football season. His journey wasn’t looking all that great.

But…

But…

In the words of that other Journey, “Don’t Stop Believin.’ ”

“I knew my opportunity was going to show itself,” Brown admitted after his third 100-yard effort in four games. “I knew when it came, I was going to be ready for it. So I prepared for this time and these moments. That’s why I’ve been doing so well. I was ready for it.

“It just happens like that sometimes. It’s just how life goes. Just me getting the ball, just having to make some things shake. Just happens to be me. I don’t know. Everything happens for a reason. I believe in that. I just take it and run with it. Go with the wave.”

THE VIRTUES OF FOOTBALL

Levis knows whereof Brown speaks.

Talking with a media horde for the second week in a row after a season of being off-limits to the press and shrouded in near anonymity save for a short and oddly-timed stint as The Lion vs. Indiana, Levis said getting the chance to play at then-No. 2 Ohio State on national TV then start against no-number Rutgers was “cool.” Both chances were opportunities he had been working toward.

He said he didn’t mind waiting. This is how Levis — a young man who literally wears his strong faith on his sleeve (“2nd Chronicles 15:7” is tattooed on his right bicep) — put it on Saturday evening:

“Patience is a virtue.”

And what of our man, Michael Shuster? You have to believe that he’s the kind of kid who would tell you, somewhat ironically, that “Virtue is its own reward.”

Still, it would’ve been cool — to use Levis' favorite word — to see Shuster run it in at the end.

As for Franklin, if Roberson sticks around for four years at Penn State and gets his degree and finds the end zone himself, perhaps it will be a small price to pay for the head coach’s last small, but very big, decision of the 2019 regular season.



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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