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News & Notes From James Franklin’s First Press Conference Of 2020

Penn State football head coach James Franklin addressed the media for the first time in this calendar year on Wednesday afternoon.

Franklin’s first press conference of each calendar year typically wraps up any lingering recruiting news from the past cycle, but the head coach confirmed that he signed his entire 2020 recruiting class back on December 18. Despite the lack of new recruiting developments, Franklin still had a lot to talk about on Wednesday.

Penn State’s head coach touched on a number of topics — including the turnover on his coaching staff and his pending contract agreement — throughout the media briefing. Here are a few of the main talking points and highlights of Franklin’s first presser of the year.

On his upcoming contract extension

James Franklin confirmed that he hasn’t signed his new contract extension quite yet, which is why the university hasn’t released the terms of the deal. At this time, the deal is agreed upon between all parties involved, but the delay in releasing the terms has come from “things that have to happen procedurally.”

Certain language in the contract is still being ironed out, but Franklin expects the deal to be finalized “soon.”

“As you can imagine, these contracts aren’t just three pages of notes. It’s about language, what Penn State is comfortable with, and what we’re comfortable with,” Franklin said. “That takes time. It takes lawyers to get involved to make sure everything’s ironed out and both parties are protected to sign. I don’t want to sit here and say a time or date, but it’s agreed upon. It should be here very soon.”

The Penn State Board of Trustees’ Committee on Compensation unanimously approved a contract extension for Franklin during an off-cycle meeting on December 6. The head coach last signed an extension in 2017, and USA Today reported that he made $5,650,000 in 2019. That figure ranks No. 11 nationally in terms of salary, and his new contract is expected to vault Franklin into the top 10 of the nation’s highest-paid coaches.

On coaching staff turnover

Penn State football’s coaching staff will look much different when the team takes the field for its regular season opener against Kent State on September 5.

Offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne, wide receivers coach Gerad Parker, offensive line coach Matt Limegrover, and defensive line coach Sean Spencer all left the team during the offseason. Rahne landed Old Dominion’s head coaching gig, and Parker is now the offensive coordinator at West Virginia. The Nittany Lions chose not to renew Limegrover’s contract before Spencer took the New York Giants’ defensive line coach job on Monday.

The three offensive staffers who left Penn State were replaced by Kirk Ciarrocca, Taylor Stubblefield, and Phil Trautwein, respectively. Franklin doesn’t think the process of replacing Sean Spencer will drag out for too long, but that doesn’t make saying goodbye to familiar faces any easier.

“That’s probably the hard part,” Franklin said in his opening statement. “I view my job as head coach to serve our players and staff and help everybody achieve their dreams — whether that’s to graduate, get a job on Wall Street, go to the NFL, or be able to grow professionally.”

Although losing established members of the coaching staff hurts, Franklin is more than happy to let his longtime assistants pursue greener pastures.

“If you look at it, it’s pretty cool,” he said. “It’s challenging, and I’m not saying I love it, but we’ve had two assistants become head coaches. We had two assistants leave to become offensive coordinators, and one now in the NFL. … Every change that happens is an opportunity. It’s an opportunity hopefully for us to hire someone with a similar skill set, and some areas can even be upgraded.”

On Sean Spencer’s departure

Perhaps the most gut-wrenching departure of Penn State football’s offseason was the loss of Sean Spencer.

Spencer was the Nittany Lions’ defensive line coach for the past six seasons, and he’s spent the past nine years on James Franklin’s coaching staffs at both Vanderbilt and Penn State. He was the leader of Penn State’s “Wild Dogs,” and he formed a camaraderie and rapport with his players that’s rarely seen at any level of football today.

“Sean was one of the guys left who’s been with me from the beginning,” Franklin said. “For me and Brent, we’re talking about our road dog for 10 years. We’d been together for a long time. Sean was great and very up-front about the whole situation. Obviously, him being from the region and his wife being from New York, it just made sense.”

The man they call “Chaos” will join ex-Penn State players Saquon Barkley and Grant Haley in the blue half of New York with the Giants, but the impact of his departure will be felt within Franklin’s program.

Franklin, who expects Spencer’s replacement to be finalized “sooner rather than later,” also noted one of the sadder realities about our society today when discussing Spencer’s departure. He talked about the struggle of keeping the news under wraps and informing the players before a reporter breaks the story online.

On new offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca

Kirk Ciarrocca was perhaps Penn State’s biggest coaching hire of the offseason.

The Nittany Lions brought on Minnesota’s old offensive coordinator on December 26, and he had a bit of time to get to know his new colleagues and players at the Cotton Bowl. Ciarrocca will bring plenty of experience and excellence in the passing game to Happy Valley this year, and Franklin said that some of his mutual connections with Ciarrocca were helpful during the interview process.

One interesting note about Ciarrocca is the fact that his last two jobs were complete — and successful — rebuilds. Western Michigan represented the Group of Five at the 2016 Cotton Bowl in no small part thanks to Ciarrocca’s offense, and Minnesota blossomed into a legitimate Big Ten title contender in 2019.

The Nittany Lions’ offense, however, won’t undergo a major overhaul with Ciarrocca in the fold.

“We’ve been fairly successful over the last number of years with different coordinators. I don’t think we need to hire someone, blow it up, and start all over,” Franklin said. “I think he’s going to be a good fit for our players. This isn’t a rebuild. We need to be able to come in and hit on [Ciarrocca’s] year-three [goals] in year one.

“Offensively, we’re in a position to take the next step — except for the wide receiver question mark. We have a chance to be better at offensive line, quarterback, running back, and tight end, so we’re in a really good position. There’s one position where we need to take the next step so we can be explosive and have balance.”

Franklin also noted that Ciarrocca has never really gotten a chance to work with a dual-threat quarterback. Minnesota’s Tanner Morgan and Western Michigan’s Zach Terrell did most of their damage through the air during Ciarrocca’s golden years, but Sean Clifford proved he’s capable of producing with his legs after rushing for 402 yards and five scores in 2019.

On new offensive line coach Phil Trautwein

It might be a decade or two later than he wanted, but Phil Trautwein has finally landed at his dream college.

As a player, Trautwein wanted to play for Penn State, but he never received a scholarship offer from the Nittany Lions. That’s probably a decision that Penn State wants back in hindsight, as Trautwein went onto become a key contributor for the Tim Tebow-led Florida Gators. He won a pair of national championships and made 46 appearances over his college career, which wrapped up in 2008.

After spending five years at the next level, Trautwein worked his way up the coaching tree and eventually secured the offensive line coaching gig at Boston College. He guided BC’s Chris Lindstrom to All-American status in 2018, and four of the Eagles’ five starting linemen up front earned all-ACC honors following the 2019 season.

As Franklin noted, Trautwein’s experience and roots could prove to be invaluable to the Nittany Lions.

“He’s from our region [Voorhees, New Jersey], which I don’t think is the end-all, be-all,” Franklin said, “but it helps. The likelihood of stability increases. He’s got a story that’s attractive to our current players and recruits. He wasn’t a highly-recruited guy, but he went to Florida, won two national championships, started multiple years at left tackle. He didn’t get drafted, but he found a way to play in the NFL for five years. It just all kind of made sense and aligned.

According to Franklin, it’s “so far, so good” as far as his job performance at Penn State. That evaluation is based on an admittedly-small sample size of Trautwein’s interactions with the players and fellow staffers.

On new wide receivers coach Taylor Stubblefield

Penn State’s passing game leaned on KJ Hamler and Pat Freiermuth quite a bit throughout the 2019 season, so James Franklin knows that his team’s passing game needs to improve.

“We have to be more consistent — that’s in throwing the ball and making the defense cover the entire field,” Franklin said. “We have to do a better job of getting the ball to our outside receivers. That’s accuracy, aggressiveness, consistently catching the ball, and creating separation. It’s not one thing, but we need more production, no doubt about it.”

Hamler and Freiermuth were responsible for 15 of Sean Clifford’s 23 touchdowns and 53% of his passing yards. Jahan Dotson’s 27 catches for 488 yards and five touchdowns were the only real other significant contributions to Penn State’s passing game, as no one else in the team had more than 15 receptions.

New wide receivers coach Taylor Stubblefield was an All-American and a finalist for the Biletnikoff Award, which is given to the nation’s best wide receiver, during his playing career at Purdue. His decade of coaching experience along with his ability to catch the ball at this level is an exciting prospect for the Nittany Lions.

“Obviously, he’s a guy that’s coached, but also done it himself at a high level,” Franklin said. “You look at what he was able to do in this conference and nationally — pretty impressive. He didn’t do it based on raw athleticism. He did it on technique, fundamentals, mentality, and understanding. If you take the combination of going out and finding really talented, skilled players and give him the training from a guy who be successful without that — you have a recipe for a lot of success.”

Franklin said that coaching up some wide receivers who have an opportunity to step up and contribute significantly will be a focal point throughout this offseason. Tight end Pat Freiermuth and Jahan Dotson currently project as Penn State’s top returning pass-catchers, and players like Daniel George, Mac Hippenhammer — who will spend this offseason fully focused on baseball — and true freshmen Ke’Andre Lambert and Parker Washington could be asked to step up.

Stubblefield just took his third different coaching job in the past four years, and he’ll be the Nittany Lions’ fourth wide receivers coach in as many years. Both sides’ desire for some continuity in the role could lead to Stubblefield sticking around for a little while.

“We had a lot of conversations in hiring him about the stability aspect,” Franklin said. “We need stability, but he needs it, too. He hasn’t necessarily shown that in his career, so that’s something we both need right now. That helps.”

On the current recruiting landscape

February 5 is the start of the late signing period for the 2020 recruiting cycle. From a recruiting standpoint, Wednesday was as stress-free as the days come for Penn State.

The Nittany Lions officially welcomed a pair of preferred walk- run-ons in five-star punter Levi Forrest and Nazareth, Pennsylvania defensive end Jake Wilson. Franklin confirmed that he signed his entire 2020 recruiting class back on December 18 when the team officially welcomed 27 players to Happy Valley.

“We’ll always approach the first signing period as the signing period,” Franklin said. “If a guy doesn’t sign with you then, he’s telling you something. Words are great, but actions are another thing. There could be a few tweaks, but we’re pretty pleased with how the first signing day went. It made for a beautiful day today — no drama. The guys who were supposed to sign, signed.”

The head coach knows that there are pros and cons to having an early signing period two months before the official end of the recruiting cycle. Some potential high school recruits and transfer portal options may pop up between the two signing days, but Franklin doesn’t necessarily “hold scholarships” for those specific cases.

One of Penn State football’s core values is, of course, competing in every single facet of life — and recruiting is no exception. December 18 brought a competition between the Nittany Lions’ coaches as to who could ~officially sign~ the first recruit of the day.

“We compete in everything we do, so the first [signing] that comes in — that coach wins,” Franklin said. “Whoever gets the last one in, they have to buy the whole staff lunch. Typically, they’re all in by 9 a.m., so we’re all relaxing and celebrating.”

Penn State’s 2020 recruiting class finished as the 15th-best group in the nation and No. 3 in the Big Ten, according to 247Sports’ composite rankings.

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About the Author

Mikey Mandarino

In the most upsetting turn of events, Mikey graduated from Penn State with a digital & print journalism degree in the spring of 2020. He covered Penn State football and served as an editor for Onward State from 2018 until his graduation. Mikey is from Bedminster, New Jersey, so naturally, he spends lots of time yelling about all the best things his home state has to offer. Mikey also loves to play golf, but he sucks at it because golf is really hard. If you, for some reason, feel compelled to see what Mikey has to say on the internet, follow him on Twitter @Mikey_Mandarino. You can also get in touch with Mikey via his big-boy email address: [email protected]

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