Penn State Football: Challenges Await Franklin, Penn State, Before Building Can Begin
Editor’s Note: This is the 19th in a series previewing Penn State football, part of the countdown to the Blue-White Game on April 12 by StateCollege.com and Onward State. Read the previous stories here.
Each win, each recruit, it all adds up to a feeling that those crippling NCAA sanctions couldn't actually cripple Penn State. Considering that many felt the Nittany Lions would plummet to the bottom of the college football world, the defense of the program's success is not entirely uncalled for.
But to say that Penn State has come out on top of the sanctions may be a bit premature. Certainly the hiring of James Franklin and the unprecedented start to the 2015 recruiting class has the program headed in the right direction, but Franklin and his staff face very real challenges during the 2014-15 season. And those challenges may be the toughest Penn State has faced since the sanctions were imposed.
Franklin knows it, or in the very least hinted at such concerns this past Saturday following practice.
"I think we have really good football players and great kids here," he said Saturday. "We just don't have enough of them. That's the reality."
That's where sanctions have hit Penn State the hardest. The Nittany Lions have -- for the most part -- survived the past two years thanks to history-making performances by Allen Robinson and Christian Hackenberg, a core group of Paterno era leaders determined to fight against the odds, and a fair share of NFL caliber coaching. The absence of any of those three things could have resulted in a much different outcome over the past 24 games. Considering three Nittany Lion wins came in overtime, some of those victories could have just as easily been losses.
And now all of those assets are gone. Franklin and his staff may be able to maintain the roster savvy and coaching of Bill O'Brien, but they can't replace Robinson and as the injury to Miles Dieffenbach has proven, there is nothing you can really do to keep your best players "safe" in a contact sport.
The result is a roster that is fairly inexperienced and an incoming recruiting class that can only provide so much immediate assistance. Inexperience is rarely remedied with more inexperience. It's true that every great player had to have a first practice and that many great players develop and grow over time, but sometimes that can be a difficult process.
"The second-team quarterback has a hard time developing because he's got people around him all the time," Franklin said of the offensive line depth. "What I don't think people realize all the time is that when you have such a lack of depth at positions it affects everybody's development. It affects the defensive backs because they aren't getting the work they need as well. It has a trickle-down effect. O-line, as you guys know, the o-line and wideout is a concern for us. Not just in depth, in starters."
The takeaway from Franklin's broader message at Saturday's practice depends on who you are. To his players he is throwing down the gauntlet, challenging his team across the board to step up and overcome the obstacles. For fans he's quelling the already stratospheric expectations set for both Franklin and his staff. Ultimately though, he's being honest. Penn State lacks depth in key areas and there is only so much that can be done about that.
"Right now, there's not a whole lot we can do to solve the issues. We moved some guys, but some positions are hard to solve with what we currently have on the roster, so that's where the recruits will help."
Franklin certainly has the program headed in the right direction but remember that he came to Penn State for what the program can be, not what is right now. It's clear that Penn State has faired better under NCAA sanctions than many predicted and very well could continue to do so. While Penn State may have issues that need addressing this spring and fall (and what program doesn't?) the roster is still comprised of talented players who are very capable of making plays.
But before Penn State fans can enjoy the success of a college football promised land they hope Franklin will bring them to, there might be a little bit more turbulence before the plane can land at its final destination.
That being said, the Nittany Lions have been defying analysis for a while now and there is no reason they can't do it again.
After all, that is why you play the game.