What To Expect In James Franklin’s Second Season At Penn State

After departing from Vanderbilt to return home and assume the role of Head Football Coach at Penn State, James Franklin took Happy Valley by storm.

Being known as more of an offensive-minded coach, Franklin’s uniting with former five-star recruit Christian Hackenberg was a match made in heaven. Offense and recruiting were the gateway to Franklin’s coaching positions, and experience working for prominent programs like Maryland, Kansas State, the Green Bay Packers, and Vanderbilt on the offensive side of the ball was paramount to his maturation as a football coach.

However, things took an unexpected turn for the Penn State head coach when his offense stagnated and his star quarterback experienced an unexpected sophomore slump. The Nittany Lions ended the season 7-6, though finished strong with a bowl win over Boston College in Yankee Stadium. Many believe that with another year in the system, Christian Hackenberg & Co. should be able to overcome the missteps of 2014. But to look at where Franklin’s team is headed, you must first look at how Franklin fared in his first head coaching tenure at Vanderbilt.

James Franklin looks on during the 2015 Blue White scrimmage.
James Franklin looks on during the 2015 Blue White scrimmage.

Franklin started off his head coaching career at Vanderbilt in 2011, looking to make a name for himself in what most consider the preeminent conference in college football — the SEC. Franklin was hired in 2011 after Auburn’s then-offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn turned down the job. Once hired at Vandy, Franklin proceeded to make a few recognizable additions to his staff. He hired new offensive coordinator John Donovan, defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, and kept offensive line coach Herb Hand with Vanderbilt.

In his first season, Franklin led the Commodores to a 3-0 start — the best start for a new Vanderbilt head coach in 68 years. His first season at Vanderbilt was similar to his first season at Penn State, as the Commodores ended the regular season with a record of 6-6. The team’s final record stood at 6-7 after falling in the Liberty Bowl to Memphis, 31-24.

The next two seasons for James Franklin would show a lot of promise for his future as a head coach. Franklin brought the Commodores to a 9-4 record at the end of 2012, and sent Vanderbilt to its first back-to-back bowl appearance in its program’s history. Franklin then led Vandy to 15 straight wins, producing a number of NFL players along the way, including running back Zac Stacy and Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Jordan Matthews. After his success, many teams sought the services of the highly touted upstart coach, but only one team really hit home with the Pennsylvania native.

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Franklin in his first year as the head coach of Penn State.

From looking at Franklin’s success at Vanderbilt, Penn State fans should’ve realized that year one was going to be a bit turbulent at times. After the team’s undefeated first four games, the foundation began to deteriorate. The offense stagnated due to a combination of inconsistent playcalling and a sophomore quarterback struggling to adjust to a new offensive system. Despite the struggles, however, the team grew throughout last season. The hardships suffered — especially along the offensive line — plus a year of experience in Franklin’s system has the 2015 Nittany Lions team prepared to bounce back in a big way.

Franklin comes into this season with a familiar staff. The integral pieces all remain intact from last season, but none are more important than Bob Shoop, who flirted with the idea of defecting to LSU. With that consistency, the team can further build on another successful season. Like his first head coaching job, Franklin is looking to improve upon a .500 regular season.

In 2014, Penn State saw the emergence of DaeSean Hamilton, Chris Godwin, and Akeel Lynch, which will certainly provide the Nittany Lions with additional offensive firepower. Along with players like DeAndre Thompkins, Saeed Blacknall, and returning senior Kyle Carter, this offense should be one of the most formidable in the Big Ten.

One element that played a part in the decline of Christian Hackenberg and the Penn State offense was the staggering inconsistency along the offensive line. After losing recently-drafted Donovan Smith and Miles Dieffenbach to injury before the season, Franklin was forced to throw young linemen into the fray which led to an increase in sacks for Hackenberg. The number of sacks that Hackenberg took doubled from the previous year, upping his sack count from 21 in his first year to 44 in 2014 — a figure sure to make any head coach cringe.

However, Franklin feels confident with the offensive line heading into the 2015 season. Led by senior Angelo Mangiro, Franklin expressed his excitement towards the men up front, stressing the importance of offering a versatile product on the field.

“I’m most excited about the offensive line and watching those guys play together,” Franklin stated. “We still have to be able to do some of that moving, at end of day get best five guys on field, the more we can leave guys at one position and give them ability to become an expert in their craft at their position and build confidence, then we can work on moving things around for the best combination.”

While in Chicago at Big Ten Media Days, Franklin discussed the expectations he has for Hackenberg in his pivotal third season.

“I’m excited that Christian is going to be able to continue his development. It’s going to be important to keep him upright, allow him to deliver the ball to the playmakers,” Franklin said. “Also the impact of the running game… we weren’t able to consistently run the ball last year as well. So all those things are going to be really, really important.”

While the offensive unit has plenty to prove, there’s no questioning Bob Shoop and his formidable defense.

At one point last season, Penn State’s defense ranked at No. 3 in the country, and kept the team afloat in a number of crucial games — including the team’s Oct. 25 meeting with eventual National Champion Ohio State. Players like Anthony Zettel, Austin Johnson, and Jordan Lucas will be key in keeping Franklin and Shoop’s defense among the top defenses in college football.

Expect the team to be better adjusted to the playbook than it was in 2014. Fans should remember that the high turnover rate within the coaching staff meant players had little time to fully grasp the respective systems implemented by each coach. In the second year, there will be far fewer bumps in the road. Growing pains are an excuse of the past, and the team’s on-field product should reflect that notion.

Another way that Franklin will make a significant impact during the 2015-16 campaign is through recruiting. He has often been considered a recruiting guru given the track record he had at Vanderbilt in terms of how well he recruited, despite competing against prominent SEC schools for the same prospects. Penn State fans witnessed Franklin’s recruiting prowess after watching him assemble the Class of 2015, which ranked No. 15 in the country. Next year’s recruiting class is shaping up to be as good, if not better than this season’s — a testament to the work Franklin puts in on the recruiting trail.

With one year of competing in the Big Ten under his belt, James Franklin is looking to improve upon his 7-6 record and return Penn State to its rightful prominence. If Franklin’s tenure at Penn State is anything like it was at Vanderbilt, we could see an impressive showing from the Nittany Lions this year. Even though some still question Franklin’s ability as an in-game coach, the pieces are in place for what could be a season to remember.

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About the Author

Jacob Abrams

Jacob Abrams is a sophomore from Oxford, PA, majoring in Management in the Smeal College of Business. Jacob is the President/GM of The LION 90.7 FM along with being a play-by-play commentator and sports talk show host. He is a sports fanatic, and strongly supports the Philadelphia Phillies, Flyers, Sixers, and the New Orleans Saints. He is a first-generation Penn Stater, and in his free time he likes to play sports and sing. You can follow him on Twitter @jake_abrams and contact him at [email protected]

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