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Penn State Football: Wading Through James Franklin’s Biggest Coaching Challenge of 2019

by on August 04, 2019 6:00 PM

Two two-play sequences nearly two hours into Penn State’s second official practice of its summer camp on Saturday evening spoke volumes.

In fact, head coach James Franklin spoke volumes as well. In not a good way, either.

That’s the point.

Which Franklin, overseeing his sixth preseason camp for the Nittany Lions, made loud and clear:

The 2019 Nittany Lions are a young and occasionally immature squad that could be Franklin’s biggest hands-on coaching challenge of his nine years as a college head coach.

Of the 118 players listed on the team’s official roster distributed on Saturday, an amazing 90 have freshman or sophomore eligibility. Only 10 are in their fourth and final season of eligibility.

To walk a mile in Franklin’s Nikes for 2019 we only have to watch practice the other day and witness his interaction with two of the five five-stars he has recruited since he came to PSU: the enigmatic duo of Lamont Wade and Micah Parsons.

James has his hands full.

WADE AND PARSONS

This was the scene Saturday night, at the Penn State practice fields next to Lasch Building: With dozens of media and scores of invited Penn State faculty, staff and their families looking on, the Nittany Lions were near the tail end of practice and using the full field to work on the passing game — executing it and stopping it.

After the first-string Penn State D gave up a deep passing play (K.J. Hamler looked the best of PSU’s receivers), Franklin — from his coaching vantage point deep in the secondary — took off after Wade, who was playing safety along steady and cerebral veteran Garrett Taylor. Franklin pointed vigorously and yelled pointedly. He was not happy with Wade.

This is not something Franklin typically does. Not with this fervor. And not in the negative. Even in practice, he’s more often the hopping and high-fiving guy you see on the Penn State sidelines. And if not, he’s a pretty low-key and respectful teacher when it comes to criticism, quietly pulling a player aside.

A play or two later, Franklin – still positioned a good 15 yards behind Wade— did it again, lighting into Wade. After Wade did it again.

This is Lamont Wade we’re talking about. The former five-star who explored the transfer portal over the winter, only to decide to return and fight to fill the vacancy left by the departure of Nick Scott, the fifth Nittany Lion in four seasons to be drafted the NFL. The same Wade who had just five tackles in the final seven games of the 2018 season. The same Wade who was Mr. PA Football and PA Gatorade Player the Year at Clairton High School, who is now a junior and NFL Draft eligible after the season.

Man, Franklin was coaching him up.

Then Franklin, on high alert, stayed deep in the secondary.

It didn’t take long for the coach to direct his ire at his hyperactive sophomore linebacker, Micah Parsons.

“Play to the whistle! Play to the whistle! Play to the whistle!” Franklin shouted at No. 11.

To be fair, the coaches were slow in the whistle in the passing drill, allowing a sneaky and strong back like Ricky Slade to shake loose and run along the sidelines for extra yardage event though he would have been downed in a live situation.

No matter, at last to Franklin. Parsons may have been the team’s leading tackler last year, very likely one of its three signature stars in 2019 and a five-star who was in the spotlight throughout a maddening hot-and-cold recruitment process that Franklin readily admitted he had never been through before — and never wants to do it again.

Hardly a spoiler alert: Micah’s a star and a frenetic personality and somewhat undisciplined, hard to rein in, especially on a young team bereft of mature leaders like McSorley and BBell and Cabinda and Scott and...well, you get the idea.

So, getting on Parsons may have had at least a duality of purpose. Perhaps he didn’t finish off the play. And perhaps, like Belichick does with Brady, the most talented guy on the field sometimes is bitched at the most. Because.

Franklin, who has his undergrad degree in psychology and a masters in educational leadership and the equivalent of a doctorate in coaching after 25 years  the biz and is OCD-ly intentional in all that he does, obviously gets that. Keeping Parsons focused could be a full-time job — and it may be one of Franklin’s major tasks in 2019.

How do we know that? On the very next play, CJF went after Micah again: “Play to the whistle! Play to the whistle!”

At that point, I turned to Audrey Snyder of The Athletic — we were watching practice together— and said, “It looks like James is going to be doing a lot of coaching this year.” 

BY THE NUMBERS

A big part of that coaching, as we saw on Saturday, is not about technique. It’s about personality, about discipline, about attitude about complacency, about expectations.

That will be one of Franklin’s biggest challenges of 2019. Maybe No. 1.

Further proof is a breakdown of the roster numbers — scholarship and walk-on, combined — for the 118 players who started camp on Friday — that I referenced earlier:

Freshmen with freshman eligibility — 31

Sophomores with freshman eligibility — 21

Sophomores with sophomore eligibility — 9

Juniors with sophomore eligibility — 29        

Juniors with junior eligibility — 5

Seniors with junior eligibility — 13                

Seniors with senior eligibility — 2 (Cam Brown, Blake Gillikin)

Fifth-year seniors with senior eligibility — 3 (Nick Bowers Dan Chisena, John Reid)

Grad students with senior eligibility — 5 (Weston Carr, Steve Gonzalez, Jan Johnson, Rob Windsor, Garrett Taylor)

WIN NOW...AND LATER

Franklin gets it. He’s trying to both win games and also mold a very young group into an eventual contender. Not just for 2019, but for 2020 (at Virginia Tech and Nebraska, plus the B10 East) and 2021 (hello, Auburn) as well.

“…that's going to be a big part of our camp is like always, you're finding your true identity,” Franklin said on Saturday. “You have an idea of what you think you're going to be going into camp and then you're trying to figure out what you're going to be able to hang your hat on and how quickly can you get to that during camp or is that within your first three games or whatever it may be.

“Part of that identity is who are your culture drivers in your program and who are the guys you can go to that you know are reinforcing those messages all the time — whether it's in the locker room when you're not around or whether it's Saturday night or whatever it may be, or after adversity. Because we all know, it's easy when things are going well. It's when the tough times hit.”

That’s why, even from the beginning in 2019, Franklin is trying to make those tough times in practice — whether you’re Lamont Wade or Micah Parsons — hit early and often.



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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