Well, Penn State’s offseason is here and that means the Nittany Lions will shift their focus from any potential bowl prep to the early stages of 2021. In the meanwhile James Franklin, his staff and players will take some time to be back home with their families and unwind from a busy, emotional and hectic season.
Once that’s done, whenever that might be, everyone will have their hands full with what is bound to be a unique and COVID-avoiding 2021 spring and summer. The to-do list is long, but here are five things that come to mind.
Refine The Presentation:
James Franklin has lamented on multiple occasions that his coaching style is not that of the Zoom/video chat ilk. While Penn State has somewhat graduated away from the entirely online formatting of operations, there’s still a significant chunk of what goes on that happens over the screen. This can be a blessing and a curse. On some level it’s why Penn State was able to avoid outbreaks, on the other hand it also likely contributed to some disconnects along the way. While ‘Zoom’ isn’t to blame for Penn State going 4-5, or more importantly starting 0-5, it probably didn’t help. But hey, welcome to a pandemic.
In the long optimistic view, one might imagine more things are taking place in person by the time the season starts in 2021. A view less cheery might realize that spring practice and many of the other offseason meetings seem destined for more online venues.
The point is, Franklin isn’t going to be back in his comfort zone now that the season is over, and while nobody can really speak to what did or did not work, it seems safe to assume that it could have gone better. If nothing else, given a second crack at doing everything online, they might do things differently.
Not knowing a lot of the specifics this is something of a speculation, but more than a few coaches have noted that it’s not an easy transition to make. Penn State men’s hockey coach Guy Gadowsky has been open about his own shortcomings in this area, and for as well equipped as Franklin might be at the job, it’s safe to assume he never planned on coaching this way before.
So take some time – now that you’ve got the time – and figure out what works and what doesn’t. This was probably taking place during the season, but how much can you really overhaul in the middle of the year?
Go Shopping, For Everything:
James Franklin has been open about the fact Penn State will be taking advantage of the transfer portal this offseason, but he has mainly focused – publicly – on defensive backs. While this is his frontward facing stance, it seems likely that Franklin will go shopping for everything and that might even mean a quarterback. Sean Clifford isn’t the only reason why Penn State had an up-and-down season, but he certainly did his fair share of harm. In the very least, he wasn’t always part of the solution.
In the long run Clifford is the best option Penn State has at quarterback, and that’s for better or worse. Will Levis is turning into bulky-Tommy Stevens and if he could throw better than Clifford, it seems fair to assume he would have been allowed to throw by now. But he hasn’t.
This could all become particularly important if Levis were to decide to transfer. Much like Stevens it’s easy to picture Levis wanting to be a quarterback more than a fullback and in turn, opting out for a program that wants to use his legs and his arm.
When it’s all said and done there might not be a quick fix at quarterback. Installing a new face is only going to create different issues where it replaces old ones. With Clifford, Franklin at least knows what he’s going to get, and there is value in that.
All told, it doesn’t seem like Clifford is the guy to take Penn State to the next level, but there are worse things than rebounding with your second 11-win season as a starter. Better quarterbacks have done far worse.
In either case, Franklin will have to shop for everything.
With in-person recruiting still a thing of the past for the foreseeable future, Penn State is going to want to find a way for a much stronger in-state approach for a far more talented 2022 recruiting class. Penn State’s 2021 haul is probably better than it gets credit for, but if Franklin is going to admit that it could have been better, then it’s safe to take his word for it.
Pennsylvania didn’t provide Penn State with many great targets last cycle but the Nittany Lions also missed out on all of the big fish. One would be hard-pressed to question Franklin’s general recruiting abilities, but the 2022 haul will really set the course for how the next few might go. With far more big fish to deal with inside the state, this ought to bring the focus farther north after chasing down recruits from a pretty big footprint in 2021.
All things considered Penn State has started off well for 2022 [third nationally and second in the Big Ten] and how Franklin and his staff continue to approach 2022 is unlikely to suddenly change now that the season is over. That said, getting more momentum with this group is one of the biggest objectives on the table right now. Rankings are somewhat meaningless early in a cycle, but the longer that trajectory can head in the right direction, the better off 2021 just becomes a blip in the data set.
Aside from any kind of postseason recap press conference, nobody is likely to see or hear from Franklin for a month or two. The guy and all of his players and staff members ought to go home and see their families and forget about everyone else.
Once that’s over though, Franklin would be well served to get in front of a few cameras or microphones and unpack the season once again and lay out what happens next. This has been – pandemic or not – the worst season under his watch by far. It’s one thing to lose a Rose Bowl and bring everyone back in 2017, it’s something else to start 0-5 and lean on the feel-good emotions of being 4-0 the last four weeks, no matter how you slice it.
That’s not to say that what happened in 2020 wasn’t without a reasonable explanations. That said, there’s more explaining to do, and if he wants to sell people on the vision and more importantly the combo of Brent Pry and Kirk Ciarrocca, it would serve all three of them well to toss up some honesty to the masses. It might feel like unjustified criticism, but everything is PR, and they could all use some good PR at this point.
Franklin hasn’t been on a Coaches Caravan for a while now, and that certainly isn’t happening in 2021 given the ongoing pandemic, but a few media sessions wouldn’t hurt his cause any.
If you want people to buy tickets in the middle of everyone losing their jobs, you may as well make a pitch for something better than 4-5. And why you think it’ll happen.
Whether or not you’re a big fan of any given coach on Penn State’s staff right now, continuity is going to be a bigger asset than some hypothetical staff change. Penn State’s struggles this year, at least in part, had a lot to do with a handful of new faces trying to do their job with new players at a new program and doing all of it online and very little in person. Even during a normal year continuity is key, let alone when everything is strange.
So lock everyone up with the money they need, the resources they want and the support that improvement will take. Pry has a long history of good defenses and Ciarrocca was the best OC Penn State wanted to land for a reason. Give them another shot. If it doesn’t pan out in 2021, then consider what you do next, but right now Penn State is better off working with what it knows it has, than trying to install what it hopes it can get.