Penn State Football: Franklin Thinks Spring (Practice)
There may still be snow on the natural grass practice field that James Franklin looks down on from his second-floor Lasch Building office.
Even though he spent the past three winters in Nashville, the white stuff shouldn’t bother him one bit. After all, the new Penn State head football coach was born -- on Groundhog Day, Feb. 2 -- and bred in Pennsylvania.
Still, as he likes to joke of his Common palate, “this head isn’t made for this kind of weather any more.”
If Punxsutawney Phil was right, this global warming winter thing should lift exactly six weeks after Franklin’s birthday. To the day. That would be Monday, March 17 – the first date of Penn State’s 15 official spring practices under Franklin’s direction. For the new coach, who has been on the job for a mere half-hundred days, it can’t get here soon enough. Yes, he may be perpetually Red Bull ready and Pharrell Williams happy. But, as he noted in an interview on Friday, “it’s challenging and I’m not the most patient guy.”
Franklin and his staff have already taken their new squad through some 5:30 a.m. workouts inside the fairly toasty Holuba Hall. (To watch a Franklin post-workout pep talk, click here. To see new PSU defensive line coach Sean “Chaos” Spencer in action at winter conditioning, click here.)
But that’s a poor substitute for what’s ahead. If you watch those videos, in addition to all the music and yelling, you’ll also notice this about the winter workouts: There’s no football.
SPRING PRACTICE NUMBERS AND DATES
Penn State’s spring practices will be different. And new, for coaches and players alike. The drills will culminate with the Blue-White Game, which kicks off at 1:30 p.m. in Beaver Stadium on Saturday, April 12. That’s earlier than usual, in part because it culminates a big Penn State fundraising weekend and partly because it was nudged up by a late Easter date. (Compare that with 1980, when the spring game was played on May 3.)
Winter workouts end this week. The players will head home for spring break March 10-14. When they get back, Franklin gets his first in-pads look at his team. It’s a young one. The current 96-man roster features, eligibility-wise, 11 seniors and fifth-year players, 23 juniors, 33 sophomores and 29 freshmen (this includes five players enrolled in January). Add the 20 high school seniors who signed letters of intent in February, and 71% of the squad is players with freshman or sophomore eligibility.
The Nittany Lions will basically go Monday-Wednesday-Friday throughout the spring. Official practices are slated for March 17, 19, 21, 22, 24, 26, 28, 29 and 31; and April 2, 5, 7, 9 and 11. The Blue-White Game is practice No. 15.
Franklin has a lot to do until then. He and his assistants – eight of the nine were on his staff at Vanderbilt -- spent the first weeks of their Penn State employ on the road recruiting. First, fast and furiously closing the Class of 2014. Then, seemingly trying to bowl a perfect early-verbal ESPN 300 with the Class of 2015.
A coaches clinic in Pittsburgh one weekend was followed by a coaches clinic in Allentown this past weekend. At the latter, Franklin keynoted 37 rousing minutes of blue-and-white oratory directed at the hundreds of high school coaches on hand. All the while, his staff is still getting settled into State College. Or trying to, if you get my drift: One new Penn State assistant coach was to have welcomed his moving van from Nashville to State College on Monday. Snow luck there.
5 QUESTIONS WITH JAMES FRANKLIN
On Friday night, before Franklin spoke at the coaches clinic, Willie Jungels (@WillJungelsPSU) of Penn State’s ComMedia and I had a chance to spend a few minutes with the new Nittany Lion coach. He offered the following thoughts on the upcoming start of his first spring drills at Penn State:
On knowing the players before spring practice starts:
“It’s hard, since you have the NCAA rules (limiting practice and contact to 20 hours per week). You have the 20 hours, which is fine once your program has been established. But when you try to play catch up it makes it difficult. Plus, when we took the job we had a team meeting and we went on the road for three weeks and never saw the guys. It’s challenging and I’m not the most patient guy.
“It’s naturally starting to happen. All of our position coaches have taken their guys out to dinner. We typically would bring them to their homes, which is a little more personal. But bringing the guys to the Residence Inn doesn’t have the same kind of feel as your home.”
On team leaders in the spring:
“It starts with morning workouts, more than anything else. It starts every day. Leadership is not 15 days. It’s what they’re doing Saturday night, it’s what they’re doing Monday morning going to class, it’s the locker room. It’s all those things. You start to pick up on who the leaders are pretty quickly.
“For us as coaches, some of the biggest challenges are developing leaders. Anybody can identify leadership. That’s fairly easy to do. It’s how you develop leadership. Everybody focuses on the seniors. You better be developing freshmen, sophomores, juniors, seniors – not only for the years to come. For now, you better have some leadership in your freshman class for when your seniors aren’t around, for when they’re in the freshmen dorms or they’re out. That’s something we’re constantly working on – developing leadership.”
On the low number of seniors and fifth-year players:
“It is what it is. We focus on the things we can control. We can’t control that. We only have two scholarship offensive tackles in the program. We have challenges. Those things aren’t changing, so we’re going to focus on the things we can have an impact on – that’s coaching and loving these kids up and making sure they have an unbelievable experience and just continue to build for the future.”
On how much of his offense and defense Franklin will try to install this spring:
“We’re going to try to put in as much as we can. We have smart guys. I’d rather put it all during spring. I’m not trying to win spring ball. I’m not trying to win the Blue and White game. I’m trying to lay a foundation of how to practice and how to work, and put in philosophies for offense, defense and special teams. That way, when we come back to (summer) camp, it’s not the first time we’re hearing these things. That’s our goal more than anything – the mentality and getting them to understand how we do things and why.”
On rolling out his core schemes and packages:
“We have an installation shell based on when we’re going install – when we’re going to the 4-3 defense, when we’re going to nickel, when we’re going to go dime, when we allow the defense to blitz one linebacker, when we allow them to apply secondary pressures. Same thing on offense -- when offense will go empty, when offense will go into motion or shift tight end.
“As coaches, if the offensive coach goes empty (set) it’s tough for the defensive coach to cover all of those things. We do it in stages of what we’re going to install by day. Then you try to install things that have similar concepts. So all your zone schemes for offense you put in one day. Then all your gap schemes in one day. All your slide protections in one day. That way we are teaching in families and things like that.”