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Penn State Football: Inside Franklin’s Special Teams Conversation

by on January 03, 2019 7:45 AM

ORLANDO, Fla. — Here’s a scene from the Citrus Bowl on Tuesday that may tell you where James Franklin’s head is at regarding his special teams:

In the seconds after Kentucky’s Lynn Bowden Jr. ran back a Blake Gillikin punt back for 58 yards, a touchdown and a 10-0 lead at Camping World Stadium, Franklin turned to one of the managers who trails him throughout the game and gave him a message.

A task, so Franklin himself could deliver a message.

(I watched this unfold through my binoculars; I wanted to see how CJF would react to the second huge special teams mistake in the opening quarter. I thought he might seek out first-year special teams coach Phil Galiano. He did not, at least not in the ensuing moments.)

I wasn’t sure what the head coach had told the student, but it didn’t take long to find out.

The kid ran along the Penn State sidelines, definitely on a mission. In seconds, he found his man: Larry Lewis.

“Larry Who?” you might ask.

Good question.

Lewis coached alongside Franklin at Washington State in 1998. Franklin was a GA, coaching the tight ends. Lewis was the assistant head coach and special teams coach. Mike Price was the head coach. (Interestingly, Franklin also met his wife Fumi while he was at Washington State, where he eventually earned his master’s in educational leadership.)

The next year, Lewis got the head coaching job at Idaho State and among his first hires was Franklin as the wide receivers coach. It was Franklin’s first full-time job coaching major college football. 

The next year Franklin left for Maryland. Lewis stayed at Idaho State for eight seasons, compiling a 40-49 record and winning a Big Sky title before fired after the 2006 season.

Lewis had three more coaching stops after that, handling the special teams at each program. 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.

In 2017, Lewis came to Penn State as a quality control consultant. After last season, he was brought on staff full-time as a football analyst and analytics coordinator. As such, he can take part in staff meetings and observe practice, but since he is not one of Penn State’s 10 full-time assistants — although Galiano is— Lewis can’t do any coaching of the Penn State players during practice or in games.

An Oregon native who played linebacker at Boise State, he’s 61 and has been in coaching since 1981. Lewis has known Franklin longer than anyone in the entire program except defensive coordinator Brent Pry — longer than Dwight Galt, longer than Ricky Rahne. He’s a trusted aide, an experienced college football veteran and a valuable voice that you never hear about.

But, seconds after a second major fail in Penn State’s special teams in Tuesday, it was Lewis who Franklin wanted to hear his voice.

Which brings us back the kid literally running down Lewis…

Lewis got the message from the student that Franklin wanted to see him. So, Lewis winded his way along the sidelines and he finally found Franklin, who was alone and looking out at the playing field at the point.

Lewis tapped Franklin on the shoulder. Franklin turned, then engaged his old mentor in a fairly lengthy conversation. Franklin — as his habit — cupped his hand over his mouth as he walked.

The conversation over (at least for a bit), Lewis walked away. And that was that. 

It may, or may not, say a lot that in the moments after the major second special teams gaffe that James turned to Larry — and not Phil.

WHAT FRANKLIN SAID POST-GAME

As it is, Franklin was not happy with the special teams (which also missed a 40-yard field goal and a 36-yarder was blocked) after the game. Or the season, for that matter.

“I think it’s a couple things,” Franklin said after the game when asked about the special teams woes in 2018. “It’s inconsistency. You know, we punt the ball 73 yards once and then we shank the next. And that’s kind of happened kind of throughout the year. It’s our execution. It’s (a) responsibility for us as coaches to make sure (players) are confident and understand what their responsibilities are. But we haven’t done it. We haven’t done it consistently all year long, so it's a concern coming into the season. 

“We knew relying on two true freshmen from the specialist position (place-kicker and kickoffs), that was going to be a little bit of a concern. But we also have had some opportunities that we haven’t made. Haven’t made plays, haven't done consistently what we need to do.

“Like everything, we’ll evaluate it. We'll take a deep dive in it. We'll ask tough questions to ourselves and we'll look at everything, A through Z. We'll look at everything. We'll have tough conversations. We'll do what we've got to do to get better, but it was not up to our standards today. Wasn't up to our standards all year long.”

What will those conversations entail?

Special teams that haven’t been very special, obviously. And the coaching thereof — or, lack thereof.

Beyond that, we can’t quite be sure, at least for now.

But given that he was Franklin’s go-to guy in the moments after the Kentucky punt return score, I would bet that Larry Lewis will continue to be in the middle of those conversations.



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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