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Penn State Football: What James Franklin May Value in an Offensive Coordinator (and What Mike Gundy Has to Do With It)

by on December 15, 2019 6:15 PM

In his six seasons at Penn State, James Franklin has fired two assistant coaches.

One wasn’t a good fit scheme-wise (John Donovan). And to be fair, he was as hindered by anyone by the sanctions and lack of depth on the offensive line. 

One wasn’t a good fit culture-wise (David Corley). And to be fair, Corley was hired as a running backs coach, his strength, and quickly moved to wide receivers coach.

Now, Franklin is on the cusp of hiring his 10th assistant coach, not counting the original fleet he brought to Penn State from Vanderbilt. Those hires: 

Seven on offense.

Two on special teams.

One on defense.

By name, and in order of hiring date, they are on offense: Joe Moorhead, Matt Limegrover, Tyler Bowen, Corley,  Ja’Juan Seider and Gerad Parker. On special teams: Phil Galiano and Joe Lorig. And, instructively, just one on defense: Tim Banks, with whom Franklin worked before. 

The Nittany Lion defensive staff has been a paragon of stability since CJF arrived in January 2014. In that time, only Bob Shoop has departed the D-room (acrimoniously, after the 2015 season). It took Franklin just a few hours to walk the hall from his second-floor office in Lasch Building and promote Brent Pry into that position.

Franklin then quickly hired Banks, a former D-coordinator at Illinois. The two were together for two seasons at Maryland, Franklin coaching the wide receivers and as recruiting coordinator and Banks coaching the linebackers. 

(Banks is one of three Penn State assistants who have coached at the Nittany Lions’ Cotton Bowl foe, Memphis — in 2001-02. Pry was there in 2007-09 and Lorig in 2016-18.)

Add in Sean Spencer, who like Pry has been with Franklin since Day One at Vanderbilt, and former Nittany Lion co-captain Terry Smith, who with Franklin since Day One at Penn State, and the defensive staff has had a Paterno-like stability.

Even in the unlikely event that Franklin promotes within to fill the offensive coordinator/QB coach position laid vacant when Ricky Rahne left for Old Dominion last week (read my view of that scenario here), CJF still needs to add an offensive assistant.

In the likeliest scenario, the new hire will coach quarterbacks and be the offensive coordinator. It would be the third person in that position over the past four years. You can’t criticize Franklin for the turnover here: Both Moorhead and Rahne left for head coaching positions, a credit to their skills, the offense’s performance and Franklin’s willingness to let them call the shots.

TURNOVERS AT WIDE RECEIVER

For turnover, though, the Penn State wide receivers group is a different animal. And nothing to boast about.

In 2019, the Nittany Lion wide receivers had their third coach in three seasons — Josh Gattis (2014-2017), Corley (2018) and Parker (2019).

In a Thanksgiving Eve media scrum, I asked Franklin, “How do you think Parker has done in his first year here? 

Remember, this was just 30 hours after the news that Justin Shorter, a five-star recruit whose two-year career at Penn State was plagued by injuries and disappointment by all sides, met with Franklin and entered the transfer portal. Shorter had three catches for 20 yards in 2018 and 12 catches for 137 yards in 2019 (no touchdowns). A different trajectory: Allen Robinson had three catches as a freshman and 77 as a sophomore.

So, Franklin’s response is instructive in a couple of regards.

First, he addressed the question — sort of — about Parker’s impact in his first season as the Nittany Lions’ wide receivers coach. It was Parker’s 11th year as a WR coach: three at UT-Martin, four at Purdue, one at Duke and two at Marshall (2011-12), when current Penn State running backs coach Ja’Juan Seders was also there. No doubt, when Franklin was looking to make the hire last January, Seider was an influential voice.

“Good. Yeah. Gerad’s been great,” was Franklin’s assessment. “He’s a great teammate, in terms of the office, with the coaching staff and contributions. Really good from a culture standpoint. Fundamentally, he’s really, really good.”

Franklin didn’t stop there. He did a quick turn, and addressed the often-underrated factor of staff stability‚ for which Parker is the poster boy.

The WR group has been one in turmoil in several directions, with ramifications.

There were myriad drops in 2018, and more than a few in 2019. (After the Minnesota game, tight end Pat Freiermuth said flatly but pointedly, “The drops are back.”) Former Penn Staters Juwan Johnson and Brandon Polk portalled after last season, and had strong years in the 2019 season — which continues for them both. 

Polk has 67 receptions for 1,101 yards and 11 TDs for James Madison, including seven receptions in JMU’s FSC playoff win over Northern Iowa on Saturday. Johnson, hampered by injury early in the season, has come on strong for Rose Bowl-bound Oregon: He’s had 19 grabs in the past five games, with four TDs.

Then there was Shorter’s abrupt departure in the last week of the regular season. Odd. And, it’s possible that KJ Hamler could depart for the NFL after three seasons, the first spent as a medical redshirt. 

That would leave a 2020 receiving corps very thin on experience, with only 42 combined catches in 2019: Johan Dotson (24-462 yards, 4 TDs), Cam Sullivan-Brown (8-56, in only four games), Daniel George (7-85), Mac Hippenhammer (1-15), Isaac Lutz (1-15) and Justin Weller (1-10).

It’s a far, far cry from late August 2017, when Gattis faced a media gaggle after a preseason practice and said one of his biggest challenges was sharing the ball with the half-dozen receivers he believed in: DaeSean Hamilton, DeAndre Thompkins, Saaed Blacknall, Irv Charles, Polk and Johnson. (In the ensuing 2017 season, that sextet caught 165 passes, and that doesn’t count Mike Gesicki’s 57 grabs or Saquon Barkley’s 54 receptions.)

THE IMPACT OF TURNOVERS

Franklin has noticed.

“I think the challenge sometimes with assistant coaches — and we’ve had turnover at that position, which is not ideal — it’s kind of like when a head coach is hired,” Franklin said. “He comes in and as much as he embraces all the players, there’s always this feeling that when your first recruiting class comes in that they’re your guys. And the other guys aren’t. As much as you fight that and try to embrace them, there’s a bond that is built when you go into someone’s home and you recruit him and his parents and they commit to you.

“Then when you have multiple coaching changes at one position, you got to battle like crazy, to build that bond.

“And obviously,” Franklin added, “when you don’t have success and that bond and relationship are not there, it’s hard to work through some of the challenges. That’s why at the end of the day, my philosophy always has been and always will be: My overall, my over-reaching philosophy for the program is relationships. It’s all got to be about relationships. With staff, with the players, with everybody that comes into contact with our players and who I come into contact with.

“Everybody better be pouring their hearts and souls into the program — and, most importantly, the players. Because there are going to be tough times and the only way to get through those tough times is if you have really strong relationships.”

That dovetails with what a player told me a few years ago when I asked him about getting a new position coach. I pointed out that he gets a new set of professors every semester.

Not the same thing, he told me.

“The old coach knew me,” he said. “I didn’t have to prove myself again. He knew what I did well and where I needed to get better. There’s that confidence and trust factor. When someone new comes in, you’re starting over. With new classes, it’s a new subject every time. Not with football. You’re trying to learn and get better at one thing.”

He was a smart player.

THE MIKE GUNDY FACTOR 

Mike Gundy is smart, too. 

What Gundy — the Oklahoma State head football coach since 2005 — has to say, and has done, with his coaching staff is germane here on a couple levels, perhaps most important that he “discovered” Mike Yurcich via some online research and made him Oklahoma State’s offensive coordinator in 2013. 

And, as you likely know, Yurcich — who is the current Ohio State passing game coordinator/QB coach — has been big on the rumor chart to be Penn State’s next O-coordinator. (Important note here: Yurcich, like his wife, is an Ohio native. Also: Ohio State is in the playoffs.)

Prior to the 2019 season, Yurcich spent six seasons as the O-coordinator at Oklahoma State. In 2013, Gundy plucked Yurcich from Shippensburg after his three previous offensive coordinators left for new jobs after one (Dana Holgorsen), two (Todd Monken) and three (Larry Fedora) seasons. In his second of two seasons as offensive coordinator at Shippensburg (2011-12), Yurcich’s Ship team was ranked No. 1 in Division II in total offense (529.2 yards), and second in points (46.9) and passing yards (388). 

Adam Rittenberg of ESPN.com detailed how Gundy found and hired Yurcich — whose salary jumped from $52,500 to $400,000 overnight (he now makes $900,000 at Ohio State) — in an excellent article found here.

As Rittenberg wrote, quoting Gundy: “I said, ‘Forget this. I’m going to go find somebody that nobody will want for a while.’ And I got lucky and it worked out great for us, and it solved and/or ended the issue I was concerned about.”

James Franklin knows Mike Gundy. Well. 

They were on the University of Maryland football staff together in 2000. Franklin was the wide receivers coach and recruiting coordinator. Gundy was the QB coach and passing game coordinator. 

You would think Franklin has already called Gundy about Yurcich. 

You can also bet Franklin knows Gundy’s current QB coach/O-coordinator as well. 

His name is Sean Gleeson, who was the offensive coordinator at Princeton and a key part of an innovative, high-scoring offense that featured — successfully, leading to three Ivy League titles — two quarterbacks. Sound like The Lion a few seasons back? 

Not a coincidence. When Moorhead was at Fordham, he once told me, he frequently consulted with Gleeson, James Perry — more on him in a minute — and Princeton about their offense. So Gleeson, who has been with Gundy since January 2019, knows all about Moorhead’s Fordham/Penn State offense. Read what I wrote in 2017 about that Princeton offense here

James Perry fits the same mold. Maybe moreso. 

Perry was the OC/QB coach at Princeton before Gleeson, and set the offensive standard there. He left for a two-year stint at Bryant College (2017-18), and moved to Brown as its head coach in 2019. Brown went just 2-8, but Perry’s stock is still high. Franklin has ties with Perry, too. His brother John coaches the wide receivers for the Houston Texan and Franklin’s former co-worker, Bill O’Brien. Perry was a GA at Maryland in 2004, when Franklin was there. And Andrew Goodman, the former Penn State football player who worked in PSU’s recruiting office for Franklin for several years, is now the director of football operations at Brown. 

RISK AND REWARD 

Hiring a Yurich and a Gleeson (or a Perry) is a risk. But it can have its rewards on the field and in the coaches’ meeting rooms. Stability, continuity, consistency count.

Look no further than the Nittany Lions’ defense for solid evidence: Pry and Spencer have been with Franklin for all nine of his years as a head coach. And it shows. 

Gundy has found his model for hiring an O-coordinator. Find a young guy who is doing innovative things at a lower level, give him a big job and a big salary. And he’ll stay for at least a few seasons. 

“Let me build a scenario for you,” Gundy told Rittenberg. “It’s the AD that hires everybody’s favorite as the next head coach because then, if the guys doesn’t make it, (the AD) can say, ‘Well, everybody wanted him. He was the logical choice, right?’

“You’re not going to see very many coaches that have a gut feeling on a guy at Shippensburg, and have the fans or the administration patronizing you because you hired some guy (and) everybody thought you lost your mind. Most coaches aren’t going to be like that.”

We’ll soon see if Franklin has such a template — not just at offensive coordinator but in continuing with the RPO, with an emphasis on explosive plays. (It’s a downward trend: In 2016, Penn State had 65 pass plays of 20 yards or more. There were 59 in 2017, 49 in 2018 and just 39 in 2019.)

To veteran coaches like Gundy — and Franklin — such stability on their staffs, and the concurrent relationships, may be worth it.

Franklin said as much near the end of the regular season. The Nittany Lions have been on a great run — 11-3, 11-2, 9-4 and 10-2 — the past four years. That win-loss record is Franklin’s favorite stat.

“I think the most telling statistic is consistency,” Franklin says. “If you look at us over the last four years, we’ve been pretty good. I think when you can say out of 132 Division I programs, there’s only five or six programs in the country that have had the level of consistency that we’ve had, that’s pretty good.”



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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