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News & Notes From Big Ten Football Media Day

On day two of the Big Ten’s annual football media days, Penn State took the stage at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

Head coach James Franklin and athletic director Patrick Kraft were among those available to the media. Both offered insight into the football program’s present and future outlooks, while Kraft also answered questions about his vision for Penn State Athletics.

Starting quarterback Sean Clifford, defensive tackle PJ Mustipher, and defensive back Ji’Ayir Brown were also in attendance, serving as player representatives for Penn State football. The trio came dressed to the nines, with Clifford even sporting his own name custom embroidered on the inside of his suit jacket.

As expected, the day was rife with coachspeak, but Penn State’s media representatives did shed light on some topics. Here’s your full breakdown:

On Sean Clifford’s Meetings & NIL:

After recent news broke about Clifford’s reported meetings about improving student-athlete benefits with Penn State leaders and the Big Ten conference, fans tuning into the Big Ten’s media proceedings might have expected specifics about the development.

Simply put: there were none.

Franklin, Kraft, and Clifford alike explicitly stated they would not discuss the specific details of the quarterback’s advocacy projects, but they still offered a couple of soundbites and some clarification on the movement’s status as a whole.

“To say I want to make a difference for college athletes: of course,” Clifford said. “To be in a conference with a commissioner who’s so open to change and talking, with a coach and an AD who’s so willing to have those conversations, it’s a blessing.”

Kraft said he has witnessed, as well as personally held, discussions with student-athletes.

“I’m proud of Sean,” Kraft said. “For being honest… asking questions, being an adult, and being able to use his voice with us. I would’ve never done that as a player.”

Penn State’s recently appointed athletic director expressed his desire to continue “listening to” and “educating the athletes” in open dialogues, though the material ramifications currently remain unclear.

“No. You took a big jump there,” Kraft laughed when asked about voluntary collective bargaining. “You asked me… ‘are we listening to them?’ Absolutely. ‘Will they have a voice?’ Absolutely. And they should.”

With football training camp beginning in a matter of days, the speakers were adamant that Clifford’s recent advocacy will not usurp the upcoming season as a priority.

“He’s gotta be disciplined enough, we’ve gotta be disciplined enough that during the fall… it becomes not a priority anymore,” Franklin said. “This becomes secondary to football and school.”

“It’s all about football right now,” Clifford agreed. “Camp is Sunday for us and that’s the main focus. It’s the only focus.”

On Depth & Experience:

When reflecting on the 2021 season, Franklin identified depth issues and injuries as a focal reason for the Nittany Lions’ end-of-season collapse.

With only a couple of prominent losses on the offensive side of the ball (Jahan Dotson and Rasheed Walker to the NFL and Noah Cain to LSU), the lack of “experienced depth” is something Penn State’s coach does not foresee being as much of an issue on offense this year. Franklin went out of his way to highlight the team’s “great” quarterback, running back, and tight end rooms, before discussing the wide receivers in more detail.

“[At] wide receiver, losing a young man like Jahan Dotson, as a first-round draft choice, is obviously impactful,” Franklin said. “But again, our two deep and our three starters, I feel like, have a chance to be as good, if not better.”

Though unsurprising, Franklin’s mention of “three starters” is noteworthy, as a preview of the offense continues to take shape. He later confirmed Parker Washington, KeAndre Lambert-Smith, and recent Western Kentucky transfer Mitchell Tinsley as the receivers pegged for the expected starting role.

Another starter hint potentially lost in the shuffle was at the kicker position. When discussing the specialists, Franklin only individually recognized one player: Jake Pinegar.

“Jake Pinegar is a young man that people probably aren’t listing as a starter, but was a starter for us for two years, before the last two seasons,” Franklin said. “Here’s a young man that’s been in our program for a long time and has a chance to contribute and do some big things.”

Franklin’s stamp of approval is a good sign for the senior kicker. However, with redshirt freshman Sander Sahaydak’s positive showing at the 2022 Blue-White Game and Pinegar’s documented struggles, the position battle may well be ongoing.

One group Franklin did not wish to discuss at length was the offensive line.

“O-line is the group that we come and talk about every single year, and I tell you this is going to be the year for the next step at that position. I’m not going to do that this year,” Franklin said. “I’m going to let them prove that to you on the field, but I’ve been very, very pleased with that unit and the depth that we have created.”

On Mike Yurcich:

In addition to injuries, instability on the sidelines has been an obvious concern for Penn State in recent years.

For the first time since 2018, Penn State will enter this season with a returning offensive coordinator. When asked about the current offseason, Clifford projected optimism and excitement, citing further time to develop with offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich.

“Every spring, you enter and you’re either learning an offense or you’re mastering an offense,” Clifford said. “In the past three years, I’ve only been able to learn an offense. This is the first year that we’re having the same O.C. in Coach Yurcich, where I can master the offense with my guys… to take that next step.”

Prior to his injury, Clifford put up some of the best numbers in his career last season, en route to a 5-0 start and a No. 4 ranking. Yurcich and Co. will have to replicate some of that success in order to best maximize Clifford’s final year of eligibility.

On PJ Mustipher:

Another injury that lowered last season’s ceiling for the Nittany Lions was PJ Mustipher’s. After going down against Iowa, Mustipher went on to miss the rest of the season, watching games from a motorized scooter.

Samuel Brungo | Onward State

After missing spring ball, he is “mentally and physically 100%,” according to his coach.

“He’s back and excited and ready to go,” Franklin said. “He wished that he was ready for spring ball. He wasn’t. But the most important thing is: he’s ready for camp.”

Recently, Mustipher passed his conditioning test – a clear testament to his physical recovery. The 321-pound defensive lineman was evidently very proud of the achievement, bringing it up immediately upon his appearance on the Big Ten Network and reportedly multiple times during the team’s pre-media day dinner.

“He said he was kind of enjoying himself because he’s passed the conditioning test,” Franklin said. “He is celebrating the fact he’s passed the conditioning test. That’s behind him. He’ll never have to run the Penn State conditioning test again. He’s in great spirits… He was telling the waiter about the conditioning test. He’s happy.”

Mustipher’s antics weren’t limited to his conditioning test. Franklin told the media how he marveled at the defensive star’s appetite.

“We went out to dinner last night. We went to have a steak at St. Elmo’s,” Franklin said. “One of the most impressive things that I’ve ever seen is: PJ ate one of the biggest steaks I’ve ever seen in my life, biggest piles of mashed potatoes, ate the shrimp… and then also ordered a full separate meal of two lobster tails that are massive. And he crushed it all.”

“He was staring at my plate like ‘that may be next,'” Franklin later said on the Big Ten Network.

On Big Ten Scheduling:

The Nittany Lions are set to open up the 2022 season at Purdue on Thursday, September 1. This marks the seventh consecutive year Penn State has begun conference play on the road, leading to some frustration in the program.

“We’ve had pretty good practice over the last nine [sic] years of opening the season in the Big Ten on the road, so we’re looking forward to that opportunity,” Franklin said.

Kraft was less subtle about his feelings on the matter.

“It stinks. I called the conference up and said this is unacceptable,” Kraft said. “We’re addressing that right away. That shouldn’t happen at Penn State. We should be at home for our opener. I think it’s… seven years. That’s crazy. I did deal with that.”

Kraft was then asked what the Big Ten’s reaction was to his phone call.

“They know,” Kraft said bluntly.

Franklin On Indiana:

In the opening Q&A portion of his media availability, Franklin was asked about the storylines entering this season’s game against Indiana, specifically the controversial ending to the teams’ 2020 matchup and athletic director Patrick Kraft’s history as a player for the Hoosiers.

“There’s a little bit different pressure associated with this game this year because our athletic director is an Indiana grad,” Franklin said. “Obviously he’s going to have some opinions on that as well.”

Kraft happily fielded questions about his previous playing days in the late 1990s, before he clarified his modern loyalties.

“Now I’m squarely focused on beating them,” Kraft said. “Let me just say I’ll be locked in… when we go there to play.”

On Beaver Stadium:

One of previous athletic director Sandy Barbour’s most ambitious initiatives was her Facilities Master Plan: a sweeping proposal to renovate more than 20 athletic facilities around campus over a 20-year period. By the time her eventual retirement came in March, much of the plan went incomplete.

Kraft, Barbour’s successor, has been asked about his plan for the university’s athletic facilities since his introductory press conference – specifically Beaver Stadium.

“I get goosebumps every time I come from the airport and I look at our logo lit up,” Kraft said. “I got very emotional walking with my two children, that gate opening, and [seeing] my face on that scoreboard. I love that building and it’s a historical building in my eyes.”

Kraft continued to say plans for upgrading Beaver Stadium were not yet concrete.

“There was a study and we’re starting to peel the onion on that,” Kraft said, referencing a March survey sent to select Penn Staters. “What does it really mean? [We have to] figure out the next step. I think we’ll have that answered in short order.”

Although the renovation plans are still malleable, Kraft explicitly said the athletics department is exploring ways to diversify the stadium’s utility.

“That building should be used more than seven days and we have to find ways to do that,” Kraft said. “We’ve gotta provide ourselves with the opportunity to generate more revenue off it.”

On Other Penn State Facilities:

Kraft didn’t stop with Beaver Stadium when discussing necessary improvements to Penn State athletic facilities. In fact, he did not even begin with it. Instead, Kraft quickly identified the university’s Olympic sports as overdue for an upgrade.

“Our Olympic facilities are way behind,” Kraft said. “A lot of our Olympic sports – which I’m not happy about and we’re working on this – go to Baltimore and fly out. It’s not right. It shouldn’t be that way. That’s a competitive disadvantage.”

“The number one priority is men’s and women’s soccer,” Kraft continued. “They have no bathroom at their facility. It is unacceptable. Both those teams can win national championships.”

On James Franklin’s Future:

Amid rumors about other universities pining for Franklin as head coach, the 50-year-old signed a ten-year contract extension in November. Asked about his standing at Penn State, Franklin allowed no room for confusion.

“I’m a fiercely loyal guy,” Franklin said. “We’re in a situation with me with a ten-year contract, a new president in Dr. Bendapudi, a new athletic director in Dr. Kraft, and the chair of the board and we’re all aligned and that’s what any college football coach is looking for.”

“I’m not a mover and a shaker,” Franklin continued. “I’ve had to do some things in my career to move up because I didn’t play major college football. But when you get to a place like Penn State, it makes sense to dig your heels in and try to make something really special.”

Exemplifying the aforementioned support Franklin has from the athletics department, Kraft said “how James runs his program is phenomenal.”

On Cael Sanderson:

Franklin was not the only Penn State head coach to receive a new contract this year. In July, Penn State wrestling head coach (legend) Cael Sanderson signed an extension to remain with the university.

Kraft was openly giddy when discussing Sanderson’s decision to stay long-term, saying with a laugh, “he’s the GOAT. He can be here as long as he wants.”

The athletic director continued, perhaps vowing a closer relationship with Sanderson and highlighting goals he had for the program.

“As great as Cael is, there are things we have to do to continue to support him,” Kraft said. “He is special. That whole program is special. I’m not getting in the way of what Cael wants to do. The NIL space is not just a football thing. It’s in every aspect of our organization.”

Details of Sanderson’s deal remain undisclosed.

Editor’s Note: Some quotes were lightly edited for clarity.

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About the Author

Sam Fremin

Sam is a senior from Ashburn, Virginia, majoring in journalism and political science & minoring in German and creative writing. He is a Dallas Cowboys fan who relishes the misery of Eagles fans. All hate messages can be sent to [email protected] or @SamFremin on Twitter.

He may or may not read every single comment he gets.

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