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James Franklin, Penn State Football Staying Prepared, Connected Through Coronavirus Pandemic

Penn State football head coach James Franklin met with the media via Zoom on Wednesday afternoon to discuss how he and his program are staying connected and healthy through an unprecedented several weeks due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Nittany Lions would usually be gearing up for spring ball during this time, but all football-related activities, including the Blue-White game, were cancelled until further notice earlier this month.

Before getting into a discussion on how football is affected by this pandemic, the head coach made sure to remind everyone to be diligent about washing their hands, social distancing, and taking all of the proper precautions to stay healthy.

After that, Franklin discussed everything from keeping himself busy during this time to recruiting during his call with the media.

On Embracing Technology

During a time that’s normally used to get back on the field and work out any offseason kinks, the majority of Penn State’s players are now scattered across the country and unable to practice. Franklin explained that, like other Penn State students, his players and staff are holding team meetings via Zoom.

The head coach said the Nittany Lions are trying to have one team meeting a week, while specific position groups are meeting more often. He’s doing his best to join each position meeting and offer his own insight to each group.

“We’re really embracing the technology,” Franklin said. “We’re trying to make sure that our players are in a good place, safe, and taken care of. It’s been a scramble, it really has, but the staff has been awesome.”

Franklin added that strength and conditioning coaches have also managed to send out various workout plans to players based on what type of equipment and resources they have available to them in their homes. Some of his offensive linemen, for example, have practiced their technique and fundamentals in their front yard at home.

“I like to be planned and organized for everything that I possibly can be,” Franklin said. “I will admit that this isn’t something that we had a plan for.”

On New Offensive Coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca

The Nittany Lions hired new offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca from Minnesota this past December. While he got to spend some time with the team during the Cotton Bowl, Ciarrocca hasn’t been able to actually coach the offense during a practice yet.

Spring ball would’ve been an important time for he and the offense to get used to each other — a fact that isn’t lost on Franklin.

“[The challenges] are magnified with coaching turnover and changes to position coaches,” Franklin said. “We’ve done a lot of things remotely, but face-to-face time is important.”

Along with the hiring of Ciarrocca, Penn State brought in new offensive line coach Phil Trautwein, wide receivers coach Taylor Stubblefield, and defensive line coach John Scott Jr. during the offseason.

Ciarrocca helped the Golden Gophers average 34.1 points per game along with 432 yards of offense in 2019. Minnesota put up 31 points and 460 yards of offense in its win over Penn State last season, as quarterback Tanner Morgan threw for 339 yards and three touchdowns.

The offensive coordinator’s resume in Minneapolis speaks for itself, but Franklin explained that the Nittany Lions have “merged” elements from both Penn State and Minnesota to create next season’s set of plays.

“We could give our playbook right now to Minnesota, and it wouldn’t look like Minnesota’s playbook. There are also things that don’t look like Penn State’s playbook,” Franklin said. “We’ve kind of merged it all. There’s probably only one new scheme that we haven’t run in the past.”

On Early Enrollees

Franklin added 27 players to his 15th-ranked recruiting class of 2020, and 11 of them decided to enroll early during this spring semester. Unfortunately for those players, they only got a few weeks of winter workouts in before Penn State’s classes were canceled for the rest of the semester and all sports were shut down.

“It’s interesting. They obviously worked really hard in high school to graduate early and get a headstart on their college career. Now, they’ve lost a good portion of that,” Franklin said. “I do think the winter workouts, lifting, and meetings have still been valuable for them and their adjustment period, but spring ball was also a huge part of that.”

While Franklin recognized the break as a huge blow to the freshmen, he also mentioned that it can be considered a positive for recruits who decided not to enroll early. This now allows all of the first-year players to be on a more level playing field once football starts up again.

Franklin also mentioned Theo Johnson Jr. in this group. The blue-chip tight end elected to enroll early, but an injury at practice for the All-American game would’ve held him back from participating in spring ball.

“Theo [Johnson] said something to me the other day, because he came in with a preexisting injury,” Franklin said. “He’s like, ‘I’m kind of happy now, because by the time we get back going I’ll be full-go.'”

On Players Working Out At Home

While he mentioned in his opening statement that strength coaches are sending players workout plans, Franklin went on to explain how they can get creative with staying in shape at home.

Although it’s safe to say that Penn State’s players don’t have access to the same facilities and resources at home, the head coach was confident that his players will still be able to find a way to stay fit.

“The reality is, you can get a lot of work done with body-weight workouts,” Franklin said. “We’re trying to embrace that as much as we can and focus on the things that we can control.”

Franklin went on to explain how the program is making sure each player’s workout is as personalized as possible.

“Our strength staff reached out to every single one of our players to find out what they have,” Franklin said. “It’s not like we could just send a workout to the whole team. It was based on individuals. We tried to find out what they have and the build the workout around that.”

On Handling Extra Time At Home

“I think the first couple days my wife and kids were so happy to see me, and now they’re about ready for me to go back to work,” Franklin said.

While the head coach started off his response about family time on a sarcastic note, Franklin made it clear that he’s appreciated the extra time he’s gotten to spend with his wife and two daughters. Many Penn State fans know that Franklin doesn’t love to spend his time sitting at home on a computer, but he’s tried to embrace his new lifestyle as best as possible.

Franklin mentioned that it’s not often his family gets to spend time with him when they wake up and before they go to bed, so he’s doing his best to find the positive in this unprecedented situation.

“I would say being around the family is always something that I try to maximize — even when times are crazy,” he said. “There’s that fine line with me, and I tried to remind my whole staff that this is a blessing in disguise.”

Franklin said that he and his family have been “on lockdown since day one” because his younger daughter has sickle cell anemia. The genetic disorder causes red blood cells to break down and become misshapen. Because she has sickle cell, Franklin’s daughter is immunocompromised and, therefore, more susceptible to infectious diseases like the coronavirus.

Now that their dad is home full-time, Shola and Addy can run into Franklin’s home office whenever they want throughout the day. The head coach can also duck out of the office and take some time to enjoy a meal with his family, too.

On Recruiting

Franklin discussed how the full stoppage of all sports around the country hit universities in the northeast especially hard. Several schools in the south had gotten done with spring ball and were starting to focus on recruiting when everything started to get shut down while his players were on spring break and hadn’t even stepped on the practice field in 2020.

The head coach went on to note that spring ball is a key recruiting period for his team, as it gives a chance for junior recruits to get a look at what practice is like in person.

As a substitute for spring ball visits, Franklin mentioned that virtual tours and other online options are absolutely on the table.

“Again, embracing technology is the best thing we can do,” Franklin said. “Facetimes are a big part of that. Virtual tours are something that we’re going to have to do. I typically don’t do a lot of that, to be honest with you. I think we have a great building and I don’t necessarily want [other teams] to know what we have.”

In looking even further ahead towards future, Franklin was asked about the possibility of having no December signing period this year. He took a mum stance on the matter, saying that every possible scenario should be thoroughly considered and vetted.

“There are so many different proposals out there,” Franklin said. “It’s hard to say anything when we don’t know when this is going to end, but all options are on the table right now.”

On Future Contingency Plans

One of the biggest issues with the delay is the fact that no one knows for sure when life will return back to “normal.” Franklin explained that his program is facing this problem in a big way — especially in terms of how or when it’ll officially begin preparations for the 2020 season.

While there isn’t a full solution yet, Franklin mentioned that a number of different contingency plans had been discussed among the staff on Wednesday morning.

“Is it 30 days, 45 days, 60 days, 90 days? What is needed to make sure that we’re going to be in good shape and the players will be able to protect themselves and be able to compete at a high level,” Franklin said.

The head coach said that he and athletic director Sandy Barbour have had several discussions about what this plan could look like. Obviously, Franklin doesn’t have a specific answer yet, but he said the amount of time needed to prepare for a full season will have a lot to do with injury prevention for his players.

While the solution isn’t here yet, Franklin and the rest of his staff are still trying to find the positives in what can sometimes feel like a bleak situation.

“If handled the right way, we have an opportunity to learn from this, grow from this, learn some things about us individually and as a program, and hopefully come out of this thing stronger,” Franklin said.

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About the Author

Will Pegler

Will is a senior majoring in digital and print journalism and is an associate editor for Onward State. He is from Darien, Connecticut and is a lifelong Penn State football fan. He loves a good 80's comedy movie, Peaky Blinders, The Office, and the New York Yankees and Giants. You can catch some of his ridiculous sports takes on his Twitter @gritdude and yell at him on his email [email protected]

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