Penn State Football: James Franklin Wants Duel (Not Dual) Threat Quarterbacks
In an All-American move, Jake Zembiec came to Penn State’s football practice last Saturday with his parents, Maureen and Tom.
Zembiec didn’t throw a single pass that morning. But the future Penn State quarterback from upstate New York looked more than a bit like a certain current Penn State quarterback from mid-state Virginia.
Tall and dark with cropped hair, Zembeic had a smile that was easy, a laugh that was composed and a demeanor quietly mature.
He wore a blue Penn State Nittany Lions sweatshirt and comfortably classy cranberry red sweatpants with a thick dark stripe down the side. He listened more than he talked.
At 6-foot-3 and about 205 pounds, he looked the part. The part of a Penn State quarterback in waiting.
And wait he must. Although Zembiec has already pledged his college football allegiance to James Franklin, he’ll only be a senior at Aquinas Institute in Rochester, N.Y.
Zembeic played only two games as a junior in 2014 before breaking his left, non-throwing, wrist. But the previous season he was named the Class AA player of the year after leading Aquinas to a 13-0 record and a state championship. That season Christian...er, Jake…threw three TDs in the sectional final – in just 12 passing attempts. In the state quarterfinals, he threw for 313 yards and four touchdowns, followed by three more TD tosses in the state semifinals.
All as a high school sophomore.
He’s eager to play. At Penn State. Soon.
“I feel like there is a very good shot for me to excel when I get there,” he told the Democrat & Chronicle, “because (Christian) Hackenberg will be leaving – either that year I’m a freshman (2016) or the year before (after the 2015 season). So it’ll be a good time. My plan is to step in as early as I can.”
If and when Zembiec actually steps in, he’ll be more than likely stepping up – into the pocket. Zembeic, although he can run the ball, is a prototypical pocket passer. And Franklin is fine with that. Better than fine.
DUEL VS. DUAL
Franklin is actually a pro at pro-style offenses. He does want duel threats – as in players who want to win. The dual-threat moniker that has been hung on him is somewhat of a misnomer.
Yes, the Brandon Wimsbush who decomitted from Penn State to Notre Dame last fall was the nation’s No. 4 dual-threat high school quarterback. He ran for over 700 yards in 2014 for St. Peter’s Prep in Jersey City. But with a powerful arm, he also threw for over 3,100 yards and 36 touchdowns as a senior.
And yes, Hackenberg’s backup, Trace McSorley is a mobile and savvy passer, able to roll out with greater ease and perhaps with more success than Hackenberg (might I suggest the TraceCat?). But what Franklin has always said he likes best about McSorley is that he’s a winner. He duels. “All you need to know about Trace,” Franklin has said repeatedly, “is that he took his high school team to the Virginia state championship game four times – and won three of them.”
And yes, Nittany Lion freshman quarterback Tommy Stevens arrived in January 2015 as a late fill-in for Wimbush, with a bit of a dual-threat tag that Franklin nipped in the bud a few days into spring drills.
“Typically, quarterbacks on their first day of practice, I don’t care who they are, look awful,” Franklin said. “They just look bad, and you start second-guessing about why you took them. We haven’t seen that from him at all. Actually, it was the opposite. There was a buzz and excitement here about how he threw.”
And yes, there’s Franklin’s storied history as a Dual Threat Coach – as a quarterback coach, as an offensive coordinator and as a head coach. And geez, he was a Sports Illustrated Face In The Crowd as a runner-passer at East Stroudsburg, back in the day (when James had hair).
THE BOOK ON FRANKLIN’S QBS
Thing is, that story is a fable.
Zembiec is living proof. And so is a close look at Franklin’s reign at Kansas State in 2006-07, as offensive coordinator and quarterback coach. And at Maryland in 2008-10, as assistant head coach, head coach-in-waiting, offensive coordinator and quarterback coach.
And also look at his time at Vanderbilt – where yes, there were times when he was a dual-threat aficionado, in part due to necessity rather than preference. But other times, not so much. While at Vanderbilt, Franklin was aided by quarterback coach Ricky Rahne and offensive coordinator John Donovan – both of whom now hold the same roles at Penn State. At Vandy, they went 24-15 and beat the likes of Florida, Georgia, Auburn and Ole Miss, with Franklin trying everything on offense. And anything.
“We just had to do whatever we had to do to move the ball in the SEC,” is how Franklin put it recently.
For his part, Donovan has said the perceived ability of the Vanderbilt quarterback to run the ball was as important as actually being able to do it.
In their offensive history together, Franklin & Friends have actually been largely drop-back, traditional pocket passer devotees. (Ditto for Rahne's HOF career at Cornell, where he threw for 7,700 yards.) Hackenberg’s run at quarterback in 2014 was fairly typical for Franklin – sans the sacks. Hackenberg carried the ball 49 times last season, averaging about 3.9 yards per carry on four runs a game (subtracting out the sacks). If there was a failing in using Hackenberg as a runner, it came in the red zone, where Penn State registered 120 plays but called Hackenberg’s name only twice on designed runs. The Kid's great at sneaks and is powerful and sturdy enough to use in other ways as well.
That’s history. And so is Franklin’s use of his quarterbacks at some of his other previous institutions. And that history is more akin to Joe Willie Namath than Johnny Football.
Franklin was at K-State for two seasons, and five games into the 2006 season an 18-year-old freshman named Josh Freeman took over the starting job at quarterback. With Franklin as mentor and Rahne as his trusty grad assistant, Freeman amassed over 5,100 passing yards in 2006-07, completing 59.2% of his throws, with 33 TDs and just 17 interceptions. One season after Franklin left Manhattan, Freeman was picked in the first round of the NFL Draft by Tampa Bay.
Freeman’s bottom-line under Franklin: 769 passes, 5,133 yards and 72 runs (factoring out sacks) in 25 games. Oh, yeah -- and two victories over the Texas Longhorns.
Franklin returned to Maryland for a second stint with the Terps in 2008-10, heading the offense and quarterbacks. Donovan coached the Terps running backs, while Rahne stayed at K-State.
In three seasons, the Terps’ two main go-to quarterbacks – Chris Turner (2008-09) and Danny O’Brien (2010) -- started 33 of Maryland’s 38 games. They were threats, but hardly dual threats.
Again, subtracting out the sacks, Turner rushed just 22 times in 2008 and then went wild in 2009, carrying the ball 55 times in 10 games (although 25 of those carries came in just two games). Total, that’s 77 carries in 23 games. O’Brien, a wunderkid as a redshirt freshman in 2010, started 10 games and ran – drumroll, please – 14 times. Combined, during those three years Turner and O’Brien threw for 7,023 yards and 43 touchdowns on 1,014 passes. Combined, they ran 91 times.
Not that Franklin couldn’t, or didn’t have to, adjust his offense at Maryland. Not that Franklin went into his shell. Jamarr Robinson subbed at quarterback when Turner was injured and was also the starter early into the 2010 season, before O’Brien took over. Robinson had games where he ran 11, 12 and 24 times. Overall, in seven games over two seasons at quarterback, Robinson ran 60 times, excluding sacks.
Franklin, Donovan and Rahne were at Vanderbilt for three years (2011-13) and 39 games. During that time, their quarterbacks -- all inherited from the previous regime, by the way -- ran 311 times, subtracting out the sacks. That’s about eight carries a game, definitely dual-threat territory.
But Franklin’s best running quarterback, Jordan Rodgers, was really a pro-style quarterback with the ability to move and extend a play like another Rodgers -- Jordan’s brother, Aaron, of the Green Bay Packers. Jordan carried the ball only 67 times as the starter over 13 games of 2012. That’s about five carries a game.
In Franklin’s third and final season at Vanderbilt, veteran QB Austyn Carta-Samuels wasn’t much of a runner, but did rush 53 times in his 10 starts (about 1.4 more carries per game than Hackenberg in 2014). Carta-Samuels’ backup, Patton Robinette, was less experienced and more of a runner, having been tabbed a dual-threat quarterback as a high schooler. He ran 51 times in 2013.
The final dual vs. duel tally on Franklin’s three seasons at Vanderbilt?
His quarterbacks threw for 8,002 yards on 1,072 pass attempts – and ran the ball 311 times (sans sacks). That’s a breakdown of 78% pass/22% run. That’s not in Franklin’s wheelhouse of comfortable play-calling.
These days, odds are Franklin likes duel guys like Hackenberg and Zembiec in his pocket better than dual threats – past, present and future.