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Penn State Football: The Elusive Ingredient Franklin is Still Seeking for 2018

by on April 19, 2018 8:30 PM

Being the leader of the band isn't always easy.

So many moving parts.

So many fine lines between unbridled exuberance and focused energy. Between seasoned virtuosos and undisciplined prodigies.

Keeping all the instrumentalists in line, in harmony, is an enormous task.

"Conducting," observed the late Sir Colin Davis, history's longest-serving conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, is like “holding the bird of life in your hand. Hold it too tight and it dies. Hold it too lightly and it flies away.”

James Franklin — at age 46 and now in his eighth season as a head football, coach...and his fifth at Penn State — knows the feeling.

Franklin orchestrates a football program that encompasses over 140 players, coaches and staffers; unites more than #660k alumni; nourishes a robust local economy; annually brings in over $80 million; and, over the past two years, nets 11 victories a season.

It is, indeed, a never-ending flow of contributors. Just this past off-season, Franklin saw a variety of coordinators, trainers, analysts and recruiters depart, as well as nearly two dozen players. In their stead came a like number of new players, assistants and staffers.

The beat goes on. And it's Franklin's job that the band plays on.

This week, Franklin comes to the end of a challenging slate of spring practices where one of his main tasks was reloading, as opposed to rebuilding, which what had previously been Job No. 1.'s the rub: It's also about reloading not just on the field, but off it. And not just physically, but mentally. Gone are wise old heads like Hammy, Gesicki, Cabinda, Saquon and Nelly.

In the last two spring practices open to the media — last Wednesday and this past Monday — the Nittany Lions showed flashes of what Franklin himself called "sloppy" and "undisciplined" play, exhibited a "lack of discipline," and had "lapses of discipline" with "too many penalties, too many balls on the ground, dropped balls."

All not to the standard to which Franklin aspires.


To his credit, Franklin pointed to himself and his staff first when assigning responsibility. He also said the squad needed more vocal leaders, beyond repeat co-captains Trace McSorley and Nick Scott, as well the team's third captain for 2018, punter/very-likely-kicker-too Blake Gillikin.

Franklin's positive demeanor and millennial-savvy leadership, as well as the maturity of his older players, has fared the Nittany Lions well over the past two seasons, with a 22-5 record and the last three losses by just seven points. The pressure is on to continue in that vein.

As Franklin told Barrett Sallee of this week, "The turnaround has been completed. Now, we're not only sustaining it, but continuing to build."

Still, the challenge of sustaining that psychological edge, with its attendant maturity, discipline and deep leadership, remains. And was on display this spring.

A very veteran team in 2017, the Nittany Lions held themselves accountable. That was also the case in 2016, when the team went on an 9-0 tear when it could have folded, thanks in no small part to strong leadership of guys like BBell, Von Walker, Brian Gaia and the aforementioned '17 leaders.

Franklin, who begins every squad session in the first-floor team meeting in Lasch with a message and a PowerPoint, understands that taking the temperature of his squad is critical. That's why he has a leadership council that comprises 25% of the team roster. Knowing when to push and knowing when to praise — witness the PSU assistant coaches' Tweets about the top position player after every winter session — is exactly what Sir Davis was referring to.

The intangibles lead to tangible wins, as Franklin knows.

“...the hard part for me is I want us to play really competitively and I want us to play with a lot of emotion," Franklin said on Monday. "The hard part is to teach a team how do you take that right to the edge without crossing the line — as a competitor and also emotionally?"

In other words, how hard to squeeze that bird.

"That's where I think we've done a pretty good job the last couple of years, with balancing that," said Franklin, And he's right. "That we are going to compete so hard in practice, that we are going to play with passion and emotion and have fun..."


"But not ever cross the line. I thought that today (Monday) we got a lot of really good work in, that we got a lot of situations covered. But I think there were a few times where we became undisciplined."


“At the end of practice, we did a two-minute situation (drill). The defense picks the ball off. The game's over, get down. And we’re returning it, cutting back across the field, making 50 guys miss, exposing the football and then throwing the football up into the stands...Just lapses of discipline today that I wasn’t really happy with. But overall? I thought it was a very, very good practice."

Then, James concluded with this succinct, singular sentence of analysis:

"But we’ve just got to mature at a few spots.”


Franklin's fine line: Foster maturity while maintaining and fine-tuning that emotional (and fun) edge that has been part and parcel Penn State over the past two seasons — from Saquon Barkley's post-TD wind-milling to Marcus Allen's post-game locker room Lil Uzi Verting.

That Sir Davis quotation about the challenges of conducting came from a recent Ted Radio Hour podcast on "Trust and Consequences" (listen to it here), and how leaders cultivate trust. Conductor Charles Hazlewood expounded upon it, explaining how conductors (and football coaches, I think) must get more than a hundred skilled — and occasionally temperamental — individuals not only on the same page, but playing the same note.

The answer: Trust.

"As a conductor, you could micromanage," Hazlewood said on the podcast. "You could drill each and every member of the orchestra into every tiny nuance — just controlling and directing, making the decisions for them.

"If you did that, you might get something that was very precise, very accurate. But it wouldn't have any life, because it wouldn't actually be truthful for any of those musicians."

Franklin is all about joie de vivre. He's also all about trusting the process, as well as practicing and playing and living to that standard.

“I’ll never be satisfied or OK with poor practices, especially during the spring, when you only practice every other day and only have 15 practices,” Franklin said last week. “Great teams don’t do that. Obviously, we’ve got a lot of growing up to do. It's unacceptable on every level."

At last Wednesday's practice, fifth-year QB McSorley took third-year tight end Danny Dalton — who has yet to play a down at Penn State — to task, which Franklin was happy to see. It's a no-brainer that McSorley was the guy to be running the GAO, as in general accountability office. He's in his fifth season and his fourth spring set of spring drills. The fire has always burned inside him; now, he's much more fiery on the outside as well.

 “Trace has been there done it knows what it takes and what is necessary,” Franklin said. “He saw things today that I saw, things that are unacceptable — lack of focus, lack of finish, lack of mentality, lack of championship habits, which is what we talk about all the time.”

Franklin was so ticked off after last Wednesday's practice, he had the team run sprints, a tactic he was so disgusted resorting to that he correctly labeled it "junior high stuff."


Truth be told, a lot of the 2018 team will be about building discipline. And trust.

Franklin said as much the other day, when asked about what traits he is looking for in a middle linebacker, where currently there is a veritable cast of thousands — none of them able to pry the starting job in spring drills. (Franklin jokingly queried beat veteran Mark Brennan if he "had any eligibility left.")

The head coach was asked what he's looking for in a starter. He replied with a Cabindian-like laundry list: durability, physical tools, fundamentals, skills and techniques, a mental understanding game, the ability to make calls and unyielding leadership.

But...there's more.

"At the end of the day it's trust," Franklin added.

"It's the coaches trusting who they're going to be able to put out at that position and consistently fill all those roles all the time — or at least a large percentage of time."

In other words: Being able to hold onto that bird.

Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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