ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit is one of the most respected names in college football today. After joining the College Gameday crew in 1996, he quickly became one of ESPN’s most well-known personalities. Onward State had the chance to talk to Herbstreit about all things Penn State football.
This is part one of a two-part feature. Look for part two of our interview with Herbstreit tomorrow, where we’ll cover Christian Hackenberg’s professional chances, Penn State coaches attending satellite camps, and his thoughts on Joe Paterno and the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
Onward State: Penn State is coming off a bowl win against Boston College in its first year under James Franklin. How do you see the 2015 season playing out for Penn State in a tough Big Ten?
Kirk Herbstreit: I think the biggest thing is, last season was an up and down year, just based on their own expectations. I think to be able to end it with a win, and I think something that is undervalued is winning that second- or third-tier bowl game, when you win it, it creates such an energy in your program. It carries over into the winter conditioning program, and eventually spring ball, and eventually when you open up camp in August. So to be able to beat Boston College in the fashion that they did, in a game that was obviously decided very late, that does so much for a team’s confidence going into the offseason. Then, when you have arguably the top quarterback in the country [Christian Hackenberg] returning, even though he’s coming off an off year, I think that gets people excited about the kind of year that you can have. Let’s face it, year two is when you get to see what James Franklin is really all about. You’re more familiar with him as a player, he’s more familiar with you.
And so, I think there’s a reason for optimism. I think there’s a reason for Penn State to be excited about this season and beyond. I think James Franklin is a good fit. I think he’ll recruit very well there. And especially with Christian Hackenberg at quarterback, if the offensive line has improved at all, then I think it could be a fun year for Penn State.
OS: How would you assess James Franklin’s first year at the helm? Penn State took the national champion Ohio State team to double overtime and ended the season on a high note, but lost at home to Northwestern and at Illinois. What do you think he’s been doing right? You mentioned that you think he’s a good fit here.
KH: I think you always have to keep things in perspective. I go back to Bill O’Brien, and I’m a huge fan of his as well. I mean, can you imagine trying to fill the shoes of Joe Paterno? And trying to run the program the way you want to try and run it? I think O’Brien did as admirable a job as you could have hoped for in those first couple years. With all the controversy swirling, and everything he had to endure, I think he really put the program in a really good spot and got it going in a good direction.
But it was really surprising to see him leave so soon and go to the NFL, and that opened the door for James Franklin. I’ve known Coach Franklin for a number of years, and I know what he’s all about. The energy he brings, and the ability to go out and recruit players… I think his system and philosophy is really different than the way Bill O’Brien runs things, mainly the style of offense they run, and also the way he runs this program, the energy he runs it with. He’s a slogan guy, he’s an energy guy, he likes to get the fans going and he’s very enthusiastic with his approach. Bill O’Brien is more of a X’s and O’s, coach’s call guy. They’re very, very different in the way they approach their jobs.
I think we saw glimpses of what I think Penn State can be. Really, that offense [in 2014] is not a reflection of what the offense will be in 2015 and beyond. I think he kind of took the baton from Bill O’Brien and what he was coaching, and I really believe that he tried to do the best he could do. But you know personally from covering the team, there’s not a quarterback or an offense in the country that could have a great year with how their offensive line played most weeks. I haven’t really studied enough yet to know exactly what they’ve done to answer those concerns up front, but I just know that because it was such a priority for them, I’m sure they’re going to come up with some answers. And I’m sure the offensive line is tired of being a punching bag and being told how bad they were last year! I have a feeling that they’re going to show up with a chip on their shoulder this year. But overall, 7-6 was right around what many people expected, and now, year two is where you see the most improvement with most good coaches, so we’ll have to stay tuned and see if they improve as much as a lot of us think they will.
OS: A lot of the NCAA sanctions were reduced significantly, but the team is still under the scholarship limit by a handful of scholarships, and isn’t playing at 100 percent health and depth yet. Many people have used that as an excuse to justify the team’s struggles last year and before. What do you think it will take for Penn State to compete in the Big Ten and nationally? How long do you think it’ll take?
KH: When I talk about all the teams, I just talk based on my own opinion and a lot of research and watching a lot of these teams. I think “excuse” is a pretty strong word to use to talk about the sanctions and the lack of scholarships. That’s reality, that’s not an excuse. They were hit HARD with sanctions, and even some of their own players left: their starting tailback [Silas Redd], a tight end [Kevin Haplea], their kicker [Anthony Fera], and others. So not only could they not go out and get new players, but some of their own players weren’t even there! I’m not living and dying with Penn State football like some of your fans are, but I’ve been really impressed with what they’ve done despite the reductions [in scholarships]. I don’t think people realize how much that guts you as a program, when you lose all those scholarships, and how hard it is. It’s already hard with 85 scholarships, let alone what Penn State’s been playing with the last two years. I’m talking about how many guys you have after the injuries, and redshirts, how many guys are suiting up?
OS: There were usually around 50 players available each week during the season by our count, give or take a few, and James Franklin said the team was down to 41 before the bowl game.
KH: That’s such a disadvantage! That’s not an excuse, that’s reality. I think what I’ve noticed, at Penn State, Miami, Florida, USC and other schools that have been hit with this kind of penalty, the area it impacts most is the offensive line. I think that’s the hardest area, because you potentially miss on some guys because you’re trying to project 18-year-old kids and how they’ll fit in college football, because it’s so physical up there. Some guys you project are busts or late bloomers, then they get in the weight room, they need time to mature and develop, and you end up playing walk-ons on the offensive line. That’s not just at Penn State, that’s an epidemic for these teams that get hit hard like this.
I think all of us are guilty of this, but no one really appreciates the offensive line until its depleted, and our star quarterback can’t throw the ball because he doesn’t have time, and our five-star running backs don’t have anywhere to run so they aren’t having a great year, receivers can’t make plays because they aren’t getting the ball. It’s easy to point the finger at the quarterback, the offensive coordinator, the new head coach. The reality is, if you don’t have a cohesive unit on the offensive line, it makes it really hard to be a threat and to win games. And so, I know they have most of their scholarships back this year, what will they be at for the fall?
OS: Franklin said earlier this spring that the team is around 81 scholarship players, with the freshmen class coming in and the transfers and whatnot, which is pretty close to a normal team.
KH: I know Penn State fans hate to hear this, because you have such a great quarterback, and they might have a good year. But the numbers are still not where they were, therefore you’re still dealing with: This is college football, teams that have [the full] 85 scholarships sometimes lack depth, and you miss on guys and you end up being a guy or two short. I’m saying they’re gonna find 22 guys to start, to play — 11 on offense and 11 on defense — and they’ve gotta stay healthy. The better players have got to stay healthy for them to have the type of year they hope to have. Because an ankle turn here, an ACL tear there, a shoulder problem here, and they’re playing guys that probably shouldn’t be out there. If you have too many of those happen, then you’re gonna get exposed. If I were looking at Penn State for 2015, I would say, “Okay, this coaching staff, even with the numbers where they are, they’re gonna be able to put together a unit on offense and a unit on defense that can be competitive in the Big Ten, but if injuries start to mount, then we’re in trouble.” Because like I said, you’re gonna be playing guys that probably aren’t ready to play yet, and that’s where the problems occur.
Think about 41 players. Think about that. And people say that’s excuses? I mean, Franklin knew about that when he took the job. He knew what he was getting into. Then you look at how they finished, you win the bowl game to get to seven wins despite all of that. You gave Ohio State all it could handle at home, at night, took them into overtime and had a real chance to win that game. I think that shows you, college football is so much about emotions and momentum, and if you win that game, who knows what they do with some of their other games? But for a team that’s teetering emotionally, with overtime, the Whiteout, at home, you put so much into that game and then to lose the way they did, that really takes a toll on the team. I haven’t looked at the schedule too closely yet, but if they want to be competitive after the year they had last year and the energy they created after the bowl game, it’s imperative they get off to a good start. It’s imperative these players start to feel and believe, “You know what? James Franklin is the right guy. This system is working. This offense is working.” Those first three, four, five games, it’ll be interesting to watch and see if they can create some new energy and confidence that was maybe lacking last year, or if they get snakebitten early, how it may have a negative impact on them. How they start will be big.
OS: Penn State starts the year at Temple, and then has five straight home games taking the team into the heart of the conference schedule in Columbus for a prime-time game against Ohio State.
KH: That’s huge. Those first five or six weeks, if they’re able to win games and create that confidence and stay healthy, that primetime game in Columbus becomes an interesting game.
OS: On the note of big games, College Gameday hasn’t been to Happy Valley in awhile, Kirk.
KH: I know! You know we haven’t been there or to Columbus since 2009. We were there [at Ohio State] for a Penn State game when Terrelle Pryor tried to quarterback sneak it in 2008, and then 2009 was USC when [quarterback] Matt Barkley was a freshman and won. That was the last time we were there. Who was it in 2009 at Penn State?
KH: Oh yeah that’s right! I love coming there, man. I’ve said it before, that atmosphere is as good as there is in the country. I told Coach Franklin while he was down here in Nashville, I said, “Wait until you see that student section. That’s the best scene in the country. The Whiteout at night, when the game matters, it’s unparalleled.” It’s as much fun of a scene that I’ve seen in my career. People talk about LSU at night, and that’s crazy. If LSU is playing Florida and one team is No. 1 and one is No. 3, in Tiger Stadium, Death Valley at night, that’s special. But there’s something about the Whiteout component. It’s not just the student section that’s the Whiteout. It’s everybody, the parents, the alumni, everybody is involved.
There are two different types of crowds — a proactive crowd and a reactive crowd. A lot of times in the Big Ten, you’ll see a reactive crowd. You get a sack, you score a touchdown, you get an interception, you block a punt, and then they stand up and go crazy. Penn State at night, they create the “12th man.” They create turnovers. They create sacks. They’re involved. Whether it’s first down, second down, or third down, there’s the same energy from the crowd. They don’t wait and say “Oh hey, it’s third down so now we’re really gonna make noise!” It’s not like that. It’s, “First down, we’re gonna be as crazy as we can be.” You’ve probably seen the difference between Penn State playing Illinois at noon versus Penn State playing Ohio State at night. The times we’ve been at Penn State, it’s typically a huge game and there’s just so much energy there. So yeah, I’ve said many times, that’s one of my favorite places in the country.
OS: Can we expect you back soon?
KH: I hope so! The way Gameday is selected, we pinpoint games in the preseason. We say, “We’ll probably go here, we’ll probably go there.” Then once the games are played, it’s strictly based on what all of us look at as the game of the week. What does everyone think is the game of the week? So it’s based on rankings, what’s at stake, that kind of thing. If today’s Saturday, we won’t know until tomorrow morning where we’re going. I’ll get an email Sunday morning saying, “We’re going to Penn State, we’re going to Iowa.” We literally have no idea where we’re going from one week to the next, until the results from the previous Saturday are in.
OS: During halftime of the 2005 Ohio State-Penn State game, you said a quote that lives on in Penn State lore: “That’s the best student section in the country, they’re crazy.” Do you still believe that, ten years later?
KH: Absolutely, they’re a difference maker. When their team is competitive, and you have to go in there, especially at night, you better pack your lunch, because it’s gonna be tough. It’s not just the team you’re gonna have to beat, you’re gonna have to beat the student section and the atmosphere. That was the first time I ever heard that song [Zombie Nation], now every stadium does it. It just didn’t stop. When Ohio State’s offense was on the field, the entire student section, whatever it is — 20 or 30 thousand strong — started singing that song, and the whole stadium would do it. When you’re listening to that on first down, second down, third, literally every time. Ohio State could get a first down, you crank it back up again. The energy that they provided ultimately impacted the final score. I just remember walking out of there saying, “That, that, is what a student section is supposed to be in college football. That right there.” To make a difference in the game… They were the 12th man, and from that point on, I’ve always looked at them and said, “That student section sets the bar.” Now, when they had a year like they had last year, maybe it’s not quite the same. But when they’re off to a good start, when they’re winning games, when they’re ranked, and they play a ranked team in that building, it’s unparalleled to me.
Look for part two of our interview with Herbstreit tomorrow!