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Penn State Football: Five Items for James Franklin’s Summer Checklist

by on May 05, 2019 7:45 PM

There’s a lot on James Franklin’s plate this summer, as he prepares for the 2019 season — his sixth at Penn State.

Not that he’s going to publicly share what’s on the menu.

The Nittany Lions’ head coach last spoke with the media after the Blue-White Game, taking all of eight questions.

(That was so long ago that Tommy Stevens was jogging through Beaver Stadium’s south end tunnel, not traveling in the transfer portal.)

And with no Coaches’ Caravan this spring, it is conceivable that Franklin could go 100 days — or more — until he talks on the record again with reporters who cover Penn State on a regular basis at the Big Ten media days in Chicago prior to the start of summer drills.

(Off the record? A different story. CJF is known to DM or text certain beat reporters in praise of, or criticism of, articles in and out of season.)

With that as the backdrop, here is an educated guess at five items that are likely of high interest to Franklin the coming months:

1. SCOUT OUT TEAM CAPTAINS — The past two seasons, the Nittany Lions headed into the summer with their team captains solidified. In 2018, the trio of Trace McSorley, Blake Gillikin and Nick Scott were named co-captains on April 14. In 2017, McSorley, Scott and Jason Cabinda were named team captains on March 22. 

Not so this year.

There has been no announcement as to who will be the official on-the-field leaders this coming season. The 2019 Nittany Lions are a group in dire need of defined veteran leadership. And the use of “dire” here is not hyperbolic.

Penn State will be a very young group, for sure, with as many as 70 of the players on the spring roster true or redshirt sophomores — or younger. Add in a dozen freshman scholarship athletes arriving in the next six weeks, and this year’s Penn State team of highly-rated but not-very-experienced players is very much a Vitalean group of Diaper Dandies.

That Franklin did not announce his leadership group before his players exited campus for a few weeks after finals likely signals that he is waiting for the leadership cream to rise to the top. (We know this: Cam Brown will be a captain in 2019. Book it.) You can bet he will be watching for signs of leadership throughout the summer, and will be relying on his personal Yoda — strength and conditioning czar Dwight Galt Sr. — for inside info on which players are guiding the young Lions in the coming months.  

2. REPLACE THE IMPACT OF LOST RECRUITING CAPTAINS — Andy Frank, Penn State’s director of player personnel, has been with Franklin since Vanderbilt. In fact, the former Princeton defensive back arrived at Vanderbilt in 2005, years ahead of Franklin.

Andy was a dandy of a find for Franklin at Vandy. Frank owns an undergrad degree in engineering from Princeton and heads Penn State’s very successful recruiting efforts in a logical, systematic and thorough manner. He has a master’s in education, and is a master at logistics — a nice, even unemotional counterweight to Franklin’s enthusiastic recruiting approach.

But, frankly, the Nittany Lions lost a number of key recruiters over the past several months. Franklin has reloaded but losing the trio of Kenny Sanders, Andrew Goodman and Justin King from his recruiting staff had to be a big blow.

Sanders, whose experience ranged from Wall Street to the NFL’s Ravens, left to head the personnel department of the University of Oregon (hello, Juwan). Affable and smart, Sanders was a key connector to players and their parents alike. He was as well-liked as anyone in Lasch.

Goodman and King, both former Nittany Lion football players, added a sense of program tradition and player relatability. Goodman, a good man indeed, left to become director of operations for Brown’s new head football coach, James Perry (whose brother John coaches wide receivers for Bill O’Brien at Houston in the NFL). Former NFL player King, the step-son of Lion assistant coach Terry Smith, left for an administrative role in the new XFL.

All departed for promotions, so kudos to Franklin for developing staffers who had the chance to advance. But their loss, with a combined knowledge of Penn State’s rich history and Franklin’s way of doing things, is still a void that the head coach must continue to address.

3. COACH UP JOE AND GERAD (AND AMAN, TOO) — New assistant coaches Joe Lorig (special teams) and Gerad Parker (wide receivers) hit the ground running. Both were vocal presences in spring drills. But they are still new to the staff and much of their summer will be spent integrating into the staff, Penn State and — with their families — the State College community.

Lorig, especially, seems to have made an impact with his sophisticated and experienced approach to coaching up the special teams, a group clearly in desperate need of cohesion and leadership. He had great success at Memphis, where he was from 2016-18. Lorig was at Texas Tech for January-February 2019, before Franklin — a former colleague on the Idaho State staff in 1999 — plucked him for the Nittany Lions vacancy (a call that Lorig seemed to be waiting for more than a few years).

Not publicized, but very important, is the fact that Lorig brought along Aman Anand to Penn State. Anand is the Nittany Lions’ new special teams analyst and worked with Lorig at both Memphis State and Utah State. Anand is from Falls Church, Virginia, and is a key (yet silent, externally) component of the savvy that Lorig brings to special teams coordination.

4. PLAY WELL WITH SIDWELL — There’s more new for Franklin.

While Penn State’s vice president of athletics Sandy Barbour is Franklin’s big, big boss (and armed with a new contract that will help her wield a bigger hammer with CJF), Franklin now directly reports to Scott Sidwell on a daily basis. The two will have the summer to work closely together before the season hits.

Sidwell succeeds Phil Esten as Penn State’s deputy director of athletics. In the PSU athletics hierarchy, each head coach reports to a senior administrator and not Barbour. The same is true for football. Esten was a regular presence at football practice and you can expect the same from Sidwell.

Sidwell has hit the ground running at Penn State, earnestly connecting with constituencies big and small throughout the Penn State community. He was the athletics director of the University of San Francisco for almost eight years, so he is familiar with the highest levels of collegiate athletic administration. But…the Dons did not have a football team.

Not that Sidwell is alien to big-time football. Prior to San Francisco, Sidwell spent six seasons as an associate then senior associate athletic director at Syracuse, overseeing fundraising and then all external relations.

His father Steve was a Division I defensive assistant with Colorado, UNLV and SMU. He also was a defensive coordinator for the Houston Oilers, New England Patriots, New Orleans Saints and Seattle Seahawks. (Watch a clip of Scott talking about his father’s influence by clicking here.) Sidwell’s brother is a longtime high school football coach.

This is important: Sidwell, who with Lynn Holleran is Barbour’s closet on-staff confidante, has known Barbour for a couple of decades. He played collegiate baseball and then was an assistant coach at Tulane, when Barbour was a 36-year-old wunderkid AD. It would be hard to see Sidwell blindly siding with Franklin on key issues.

5. FIND (LOTS OF) ’MO MONEY — That Sidwell has a deep history of fundraising should help Franklin. Penn State’s Board of Trustees just approved $69 million of renovations and upgrades to Penn State’s football facilities.

In concert with $28 million already raised, that puts the overall price tag for an overhaul and upgrade of Penn State football facilities at close to a cool $100 million. Here’s the kicker, from a Penn State press release: “Fundraising efforts for this project are ongoing, as the renovations are expected to be primarily financed through private gifts.”

Which means that Franklin has to chase many of the Franklins needed for the overhaul — which, if my math is correct, equates to #690k 100-dollar bills that feature Benjamin (not James) Franklin.

Franklin has proven adept at recruiting donors, using a variety of tactics and occasional hard-sell strategies — ranging from enlisting the aid of his super-agent Trace Armstrong to providing access to the program, whether via team road trips or welcoming hordes of current and prospective boosters and let university decision-makers to practice.

In that regard, then, perhaps the biggest item on Franklin’s checklist is…um, ah…checks. And lots of ’em.



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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