James Franklin Talks Position Changes, Analytics, and Coaching Loyalty at Spring Practice Preview
James Franklin took to the podium on Tuesday at Beaver Stadium to preview spring practice, offering an inside look on how the Nittany Lions prepared during the offseason in preparation for Friday’s first practice.
Speaking for more than an hour, Franklin addressed offseason weight gains, loyalty among the coaching staff, and the valuable lessons he’s learned through 62 weeks on the job, among other things. Here are the highlights from Tuesday’s press conference.
Its been a little less than 12 weeks since Penn State ended its season in dramatic fashion with a walk-off win over Boston College in Yankee Stadium, beginning Franklin’s first full offseason as the head coach after being hired in January 2014. Looking back on the past few months following an inaugural 7-5 campaign, the second-year coach has finally started to see his foundation take shape.
“It’s amazing to think just year two in general how much different it is in every aspect,” Franklin said. “I was talking to (Angelo) Mangiro yesterday. This time last year he was going onto the field with never being in the huddle the way we do the huddle, never going into a cadence, snapping a ball. From last year where they haven’t even done that yet to now, going out on the field and having a foundation laid on offense — defense and special teams, expectations, how we do things, morning workouts, Coach Galt’s program.”
“We got the majority of our team now that have been through these things,” he added. “That experience counts and is important.”
In addition to building consistency and routine on the field, Franklin is just as concerned about the behavior of his players off of it. He emphasized a focus on the team’s four core values — keep a positive attitude, work hard, compete, and sacrifice.
“Last year there was some memorizing the positive attitude, great work ethic, compete in everything you do, willing to sacrifice, but we weren’t really living them,” Franklin said. “I want to make sure that we’re living the core values, not just reciting them, thinking what they mean to you and the program.”
Winter workouts see big gains
The offseason is a time for players to shape their bodies to excel on the field and withstand the grueling gauntlet of practice and games. Winter workouts are key to improving in-house talent while preparing young players for larger roles in the coming years.
With the help of the “Bod Pod,” a futuristic device used for measuring the health and physical attributes of players, the program was able to see some big gains from notable players during winter workouts.
- CB Trevor Williams – added 10 pounds of muscle
- LB Jason Cabinda – added 12 pounds of muscle
- OT Sterling Jenkins – added 13 pounds of muscle
- OT Chance Sorrell – lost 10 pounds of fat, added 10 pounds of muscle
“Professional development, program development, we’ve completed all our self scouts, gone back and studied everything, watched every rep of practice, every rep of games, done studies on our programs, met with professionals, collegiate and high school staffs, have had a lot of people in,” Franklin said.
Penn State welcomed staff members from Alabama and Villanova for offseason meetings, which Franklin described as an opportunity for “a lot of different people to sit around, bounce ideas off each other, and explore.” In addition, the team hosted an NFL consultant and retired special teams coordinator for a day. He said the program would continue to look invite other schools for discussions throughout the spring and summer.
James Franklin is embracing analytics, appearing on a panel at the 2015 MIT Sloan Conference titled “”The Formula to Win: College Football Analytics” alongside CNN anchor/reporter Rachel Nichols, NCAA’s executive vice president for regulatory affairs Oliver Luck, ESPN college football analyst Tom Luginbill, and analytics director for SB Nation Bill Connelly.
Franklin said the coaching staff visited with several different types of analytic companies during the offseason, including sending a group to meet with representatives from the Philadephia Flyers, Eagles, 76ers, and Pittsburgh Steelers to talk about sport science, all in an effort to improve performance enhancement.
“Across the board, we’re smarter just in terms of them understanding how we do things again,” Franklin explained. “We’re bigger, we’re faster and we’re stronger.”
By how much? Well, when you compare the performance from this year’s winter workouts to last, the results are impressive.
- Number of players who can bench over 400 pounds: 11 (vs. 6 in 2014)
- Number players who can power clean over 300 pounds: 47 (vs. 28 in 2014)
- Number of players who can vertical jump 35 inches or higher: 11 (vs. 5 in 2014)
- Number of players who can run the 40-yard dash in 4.49 or better: 5 (vs. 1 in 2014)
- Number of players who can broad jump 10-feet or more: 23 (vs. 5 in 2014)
Franklin mentioned that when he worked as an assistant coach for the Green Bay Packers in 2005, he noticed a guy who would sit in the staff meetings, slide a piece a paper to the head coach, and walk out. It turns out he was the head of analytics.
“I think what you’ve seen over the last five years is this really explode and people taking it to a whole ‘nother level,” Franklin said. “But to me it’s another piece of information. You look at it as true statistics that have a major factor in success. You look at it in helping a head coach manage a game of when you should be going for things and when you should be aggressive, different field zones, different down and distance situations.”
“Some people are trying to follow it blindly, some people are using it as another piece of information,” he added. “We just want to explore all these things we possibly can.”
Franklin mentioned GPS trackers and heart monitors among possible investments for the program, but said, like most technologies, there’s a hefty price tag that go along with it.
Replacing Mike Hull
Franklin was clear when addressing the biggest challenge for the defense this season: replacing Big Ten-leading tackler Mike Hull.
“I think that’s clearly our challenge on defense, not just because of the football player Mike Hull was, but also his leadership and also the position he played, being the quarterback of the defense, making all those calls,” Franklin said.
Franklin mentioned Nyeem Wartman and Gary Wooten as potential replacements at middle linebacker, along with Ben Kline, Jason Cabinda, Troy Reeder, and former running back Jack Haffner. He noted how valuable it was that most of the group (with the exception of Haffner) watched Hull practice and prepare for the last couple years.
Kline, who tore his pectoral muscle at Minnesota in 2013 and ruptured his Achilles tendon before ever stepping back on the field in 2014, received praise from his head coach for the hard work it took to prepare to suit up again this fall. With Hull moving on, adding a veteran presence at the linebacker is extremely valuable.
“Kline is a guy we’re hoping is going to be a pleasant surprise,” Franklin said. “You talk to our players. He’s unbelievably respected on our team as a leader. You talk about his toughness. Injuries that he’s overcome. Right now he is running and moving and lifting and has tested. His testing numbers are really good.”
Jordan Lucas moving to safety
We speculated about Lucas’ move to safety back in February, and the initial spring roster and Franklin’s announcement on Tuesday confirmed the news. With a surplus of young talent at cornerback, Lucas moves into a position of need with the departures of Adrian Amos and Ryan Keiser. Freshman Amani Oruwariye will also make the jump from corner to safety.
“I think it’s easier to play a freshman at corner and a freshman at wide receiver than it would be to play a freshman at safety, linebacker or defensive line,” Franklin explained. “The closer you are to the ball, the harder it is to get on the field early. So we feel good about our young talent at corner.”
Franklin stressed that it’s important to have depth at safety “with the types of things you’re asking those guys to do,” a ringing endorsement for Penn State’s senior leader in the secondary.
“I think Jordan is a guy who could play corner here and at the next level as well,” Franklin said. “I think he has a chance to maybe be special at safety.”
Other position changes of note include Jack Haffner moving from running back to linebacker and Adam Geiger is moving from running back to safety. Franklin explained those moves as a way to help improve the special teams, which was a unit that performed poorly most of last season.
“Those guys want to be special teams terrors for us this year,” Franklin said. “It’s hard to do that when you’re never tackling. Those guys will go over to be able to work all the individual parts of practice with the safeties, with the linebackers. We’re hoping that’s going to allow them to have a bigger role on special teams.”
Improving the offensive line
Penn State’s offensive line was a point of constant criticism from media and fans last season, and rightfully so. The Nittany Lions only had one scholarship player starting last year in Donovan Smith, who will be leaving to enter the NFL Draft after his junior year.
According to Franklin, the options to replace Smith at left tackle are narrowed down to Albert Hall, Paris Palmer, Chance Sorrell, and Sterling Jenkins. Unless a right tackle emerges during practice, it’s likely going to be a young player taking over to protect Christian Hackenberg’s blind side.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. With a full slate of games and an offseason to prepare under coach Herb Hand, Franklin thinks the offensive line is only going to improve — especially with the added depth provided by a full compliment of scholarships.
“The fact that we’re going to have two deep of scholarship players is exciting,” Franklin said. “We had a bunch of guys that have had some experience. Last year I think at this point we had two returning starters in the beginning of spring ball (Dieffenbach and Smith). It’s completely different. We have five or six guys now that started a game.”
However, Franklin believes he isn’t the only one excited about the improvements:
“We’ve got five or six guys who have started a game. There’s nobody that’s happier about this group returning than Mr. & Mrs. Hackenberg.”
— Onward Sports (@OnwardStSports) March 17, 2015
Members of Penn State’s coaching staff were approached by some attractive suitors during the offseason, including Bob Shoop’s brief flirtation with LSU. When the dust cleared, Shoop tweeted his commitment to stay with Franklin and the Nittany Lions.
However, Shoop wasn’t the only coach to show his loyalty to the program. Franklin mentioned that keeping Shoop was the big story, but a number of other coaches declined offers to remain on staff — including defensive line coach Sean “Chaos” Spencer.
“Sean Spencer is a guy that I’m so appreciative of and so proud of because he got an offer with a dramatic raise at a school that people would consider an historic school, and turned it down without even telling me, without even telling the administration,” Franklin said. “I found out from the other coaches. I think that’s a great example of the commitment our guys have to this program, to this university.”
Odds & Ends
- Franklin said returning tight end Adam Breneman is as close as he’s been to 100 percent in a long time, and “feels as good as he felt in his junior year in high school.” The 6-foot-4, 241-pound tight end caught 15 passes for 186 yards and three touchdowns in his freshman campaign.
- Franklin called defensive end Carl Nassib “Mr. Consistent,” praising the senior for his work ethic, mentality, and intelligence. “I think he had a sneaky, quiet, really successful year if you go back and really study his tape,” he said. “He played really well for us.”
- Chris Gulla will not punt next season in order to focus on kicking. Daniel Pasquariello and Robby Liebel will compete for the punter’s job, while 5-foot-9, 278 pound Joey Julius, aka “Big Toe,” is the favorite to replace Sam Ficken.
- Speaking of kicking, Franklin said he’s looking into adding a kicking competition before the Blue White Game with a punting competition to take place at halftime. Franklin explained the move “so I can make sure that these guys have got enough kicks in front of a crowd.”
- When talking about how the program has made “great strides” to improve and adapt during his brief tenure, Franklin paid respects to Penn State’s former longtime coach.
James Franklin: “Joe was here for 62 years. I’ve been here for 62 weeks. That really puts things in perspective.”
— Onward State (@OnwardState) March 17, 2015
Photo: Bobby Chen