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Penn State Football: James Franklin & His 7(!) Captains

by on August 14, 2014 11:00 PM

There’s a father, a Linebacker U dad and a husband.

There’s a kicker and an injured football veteran. There’s a self-proclaimed dollar value. 

And then there’s a star quarterback, the baby of the group – in age only. (At 19, quarterback Christian Hackenberg is four years younger than five of six fellow co-captains.)

Penn State’s team captains for 2014, announced earlier this week, are certainly a mixed bag.

Five are fifth-year players – all of whom already have their degrees. A sixth, kicker Sam Ficken, will get his in December. And Hackenberg is the first sophomore in 128 years of Penn State football to be named a captain, and the second-youngest Nittany Lion ever.

In addition to Hackenberg and Ficken, the other captains are safeties Jess Della Valle and Ryan Keiser, guard Miles Dieffenbach and defensive end C.J. Olaniyan.

Four are from PA (Della Valle, Dieffenbach, Hull and Keiser), the first three having played in the WPIAL. Ficken is from Indiana, Olaniyan from Michigan and Hackenberg from Virginia – although he has Pennsylvania roots. Both Della Valle and Keiser were walk-ons who later earned scholarships. 

If all that seems like there a lot of captains, well, there are.

21 THE HARD WAY

That’s the way head coach James Franklin likes it – seemingly cheaper by the half-dozen. In three seasons at head coach at Vanderbilt, he had 21 total captains: five in 2011, eight in 2012 and eight again in 2013.

It took Rip Engle 16 seasons -- his entire tenure as head coach at Penn State, from 1950 to 1965 -- to have a total of 21 captains.

Five times Engle had two captains and 11 seasons he had just one. Among his captains were Jim Garrity (1954), the grandfather of current Gregg Garrity – whose father Gregg also played for PSU -- and Steve Garban (1958), president of the Board of Trustees when the Sandusky scandal hit and a longtime Old Main high-level executive.

Joe Paterno had seven captains only once in his 46-year career. That was in 1976, when he obviously thought the team needed leadership. He was right; the Nittany Lions finished 7-5 that season. The 1984 squad (6-5) had five captains, while the undefeated 1994 team also had five. So maybe it doesn’t matter either way.

The 1991 team was captain-rich, with a true half-dozen. Current Penn State assistant Terry Smith and a star receiver that year was a co-captain, as were current Miami (Fla.) head coach Al Golden, Miami defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio and Green Bay Packers assistant Darren Perry. That squad went 11-2 and finished No. 3 in the country.

For his part, Franklin admittedly likes things big, inclusive and relationship-based. So an average of seven captains per team for his four-year head coaching career sounds about right.

This year, it makes sense. Leadership is key for his first Penn State team, a group definitely in transition. Franklin noted yesterday that someone sent him a statistic noting that the Nittany Lions are the second-youngest team in major college football.

“Those guys are not just captains on the football field, they’re captains 24 hours a day,” he said after practice early Thursday evening. “We need that leadership. That’s one of the reasons why we have seven because I don’t think you can ever have enough leadership on your football team.”

Franklin likes kickers as captains. At Vandy, place-kicker Carey Spear was a team captain all three years. And, as a head coach, Franklin also prefers his quarterbacks to be captains. Or at least his players do, for those times when they do the voting. All three of his starting quarterbacks at Vanderbilt were captains – Larry Smith (2010), Jordan Rodgers (2011) and Austyn Carter-Samuels (2012).

But, as an offensive coordinator and quarterback coach, Franklin's best quarterbacks were not captains. In the two years Franklin coached quarterback Josh Freeman at Kansas State, Freeman was not a captain. (As a senior, after Franklin departed for Maryland, Freeman was named a captain.) And phenom Danny O’Brien of the Terrapins was never a captain either. It’s a mixed bag, Franklin said.

“I don’t think (the QB as captain) is the end-all, be-all,” Franklin said. “In a lot of ways, you’d like that to be. But I’ve been on teams where your quarterback wasn’t the captain and you’ve been successful. It’s nice luxury to have, but I don’t think it’s something that’s imperative.” 

CAPTAIN CAPSULES

Here’s a quick look at Penn State's 2014 captain and why their teammates voted for them:

HACKENBERG – This from Franklin: “Whenever you see a sophomore … a true sophomore, not a redshirt sophomore … be voted by his peers as a captain – and it was a landslide – I think that tells you he’s earned those guys’ respect. Not just on the football field, but in the classroom, on campus and in the community. That’s what we talk about.”

HULL – From converted linebacker Von Walker: “Mike helps everyone out. He’s the dad of the group. He knows everything.” And from Franklin: “… Hull is a quiet leader. When he speaks, people listen. When he does open his mouth to say something, it's well thought out and it's calculated.”

DIEFFENBACH –The second-most experienced player with 23 college starts (Adrian Amos has 25), he had surgery in the spring for a torn ACL in his left knee, and won’t be back on the playing field until November. He’s still a leader.

“My role is to be like a coach and mentor,” he said. “I obviously have a lot of experience. And that’s something I’m going to be able to teach those guys, and help them get ready for the season and through the first games. I’ve been around a lot, and seen a lot of stuff. It’s a lot of knowledge and I’m trying to give to all the guys.”

FICKEN – Despite a somewhat rocky career, Ficken impressed Franklin right out of the box in the spring. Ficken has embraced the challenge of leadership.

“I’ve tried to compel the young kids that don’t have experience to attack every day like you’re going to be the starter, because you never know what might happen,” Ficken told Alex Robinson of OnwardState.com. “I’ve tried to do everything I can to instill the experiences I’ve had, how I’ve handled them and how I’ve struggled through them, and try to help them adapt so they can see what they can do for themselves. You only get 12 opportunities, and one isn’t different from the other. You’re out to compete and win.”

OLANIYAN – The only father of the group, Olaniyan has a 16-month old daughter, Nahla. And last fall, he shared how she has helped him mature: “My daughter being born helped me motivation wise. I know that each time I go to a workout, I’m doing it not just for me, but my family.”

Olaniyan also feels connected to his Penn State family: “It’s important to just being able to stay on even keel. In the course of a game or a season we’re going to have some good moments and some bad moments. I’ve been through a lot of transitions, but as time has gone on, it’s been a lot easier. I need to make sure I get all the guys going. Every time we go out there we have to be ready, whether it’s the first quarter, the first half or the fourth quarter. When we go out there, I need to lead by example. I need to push everybody every day.”

KEISER – The team’s lone married player, Keiser wed his high school sweetheart, McKenzi, last summer. He’s knows all about competing – his mother Cathy is a physical education teacher and has coached high school field hockey for three decades, earning more than 500 wins as a coach.

Keiser is tough. Really tough. In the spring of 2012, he tore his meniscus but came back in the fall to hold for kick placements, as well as perform on special teams. And last season, he overcame a concussion and a broken hand. From defensive coordinator Bob Shoop: “Ryan is the proverbial coach on the field and is an underrated athlete.”

DELLA VALLE – Last but definitely not least, Della Valle is the consummate teammate. Even in the midst of the uncertainty of yet another coaching change last winter, he refused to get down, saying in characteristic honest optimism last January: “I have nothing but great things to say about my time at Penn State. It’s been awesome.” In high school, his initials, JDV, stood for Jesse Dollar Value. He’s been quite the bargain for the Nittany Lions, coming to PSU as a walk-on with the help of former defensive coordinator Tom Bradley.

JDV’s numbers make sense. His 8.7 yards per punt return in 2013 was fourth in the Big Ten and 28th in the nation. His onside kick recovery with 5:37 left sealed Penn State’s upset win over Wisconsin last season. And he had a 3.41 GPA on his way to getting his degree in May.

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Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979. He is a senior lecturer in Penn State's College of Communications and teaches a pair of classes in the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism: “Sports Writing” and “Introduction to the Sports Industry.” He created and taught for several years the Center’s course on “Joe Paterno, Communications and The Media.” 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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