From the New Years Eve announcement that Bill O’Brien was gone, until James Franklin’s first press conference on Saturday, fans following Penn State football have been in a frenzy. The rumor mill ran rampant, Twitter couldn’t seem to update quick enough, and it didn’t take long to be come disillusioned with the whole process. But our thirst for information and emotional connection pales in comparison to what it must’ve been like to be a Penn State football player through it all.
Through the chaos, a new leader was named in James Franklin and an ally was lost in Larry Johnson. That seemed to be the spirit yesterday, as three players (Mike Hull, Geno Lewis and Jordan Lucas) spoke to the media for the first time about the last week and the new era of Penn State football. It was some of the first public commentary on the situation — aside from this column by linebacker Ben Kline.
Hull, who is entering his senior season at the helm of Linebacker U, said he was ready to take on a leadership role and is looking forward to the 2014 season to see what Coach Franklin has in store.
Hull didn’t know a lot about Franklin before he became his coach, but was impressed after Franklin’s team meeting.
“I didn’t know too much, I just knew he was doing a really good job at Vanderbilt and he built up a pretty good program,” Hull said. “My first impression was he seemed like he really knew what he was doing. He seemed like a really good leader and gave everyone a role and it seemed like everything was going to be running to be running smoothly this spring.”
Hull is no stranger to transitions. He is a part of the special recruiting class that has seen five coaches during its time at Penn State. Having been through this before, Hull said the most important part of the transition was “ to establish yourself as a hard worker and let the coaches know you are a 100% dedicated to the team.”
There is still uncertainty during this transition period, with the rest of Franklin’s staff not being named yet. Hull was confident in his teammates and that this period was not going to be overly-difficult.
“The biggest transition will be getting to know all of the coaches and see how they interact with the players,” Hull said. “We have a good group of guys and should be able to transition smoothly.”
Hull spoke highly of his former linebacker coach Ron Vanderlinden, who was pushed out after the last game of the season but is widely regarded as one of the best position coaches in the country.
“He was a great fundamental teacher and he did a great job of teaching everyone the basics of the linebacker position, which carries over on game day and that’s what young linebackers are going to miss the most,” Hull said. “I am real thankful about everything he did for me and a lot of the other guys on the team.”
Lewis was a little more familiar with Franklin, having been in contact with him during his high school recruiting process.
“He recruited me out of high school when he was at Maryland,” Lewis said. “I had a good relationship with him when he was recruiting me and I was excited when his name came up about getting the job.”
Lewis says he is looking on the experience of his older teammates to help them get through the transition.
“A couple guys called me and said we have been through this before and to keep grinding and to keep doing what you have to do,” Lewis said. “To make everything alright, just stay together as a team and everything is going to be okay. They told us to do the right thing and to keep going down the right path and everything will work itself out.”
Lewis also cited Bill Belton and Jordan Lucas as current players who were texting their teammates throughout the chaotic two weeks to check up on them and to make sure everyone was okay.
Lucas, a cornerback and playmaker for the defense, was impressed with Franklin’s resume.
“I knew what a wonderful job he did at Vanderbilt and how he turned that program around and how he got them to bowl games,” Lucas said. “My first impression was great, he is a player’s coach. He has a very positive attitude and wants to get the ball rolling real fast here and we are anxious to put the work in and see how far he could take us.”
Lucas said his main message to his teammates during this time was that everything was going to be alright.
“I told them that whoever our coach is going to be we’re going to be fine,” Lucas said. “We’re going to comeback in January and we’re going to work hard and train like we have never trained before because it’s nothing we haven’t been through before. We have been through tons of adversity and whatever happens, as long as we stick together and remain one family, then we’ll be fine.”
While these players were happy with the hiring of Coach Franklin, they were probably equally sad about the departure of defensive line coach Larry Johnson. It’s no secret Johnson was a favorite among players, and many are understandably upset that he won’t be on the sidelines against next year for the first time in their careers.
“Coach Johnson was a great motivator and a great coach,” Hull said. “He came ready to practice everyday and really got the guys pumped up and it hurt losing him.”
“Coach Johnson and I had a good relationship. I went to his house on Thanksgiving,” Lewis said. “He’s a great guy and a great coach. I really do wish the best for him and he is going to do a great job wherever he goes.”
“I know why he left and I couldn’t ever be mad at him,” Lucas said. “We can’t dwell on the past we just have to keep moving forward”
This group of players has been though more change than perhaps any other Penn State football team. They have learned a great deal about handling adversity and most of all, they’ve remained positive.