June 23, 2016
Technically, James Franklin is preparing to enter his third season at Penn State.
But if it were up to the Nittany Lions head coach, he’d prefer to be treated as if his time in State College were just getting started.
“In a lot of ways, we look at this as Year One. It’s the first year post-sanctions, with the ability to have all of our scholarships, and there’s nothing hanging over our heads,” Franklin said in March, per Mark Wogenrich of the Morning Call. “We’re still a young team, but we don’t have any of those things anymore.”
For the most part, he’s right. For the first time in his Penn State tenure, he is no longer faced with the effects of the unprecedented sanctions stemming from the Jerry Sandusky scandal and the makeup of the Nittany Lions roster would suggest a program starting from scratch rather than one that’s been building toward something.
But to think that everyone—both outside and inside the Penn State program—will be as gentle in assessing Franklin’s time in Happy Valley, which includes a 14-12 overall record, would be naive.
The third-year Nittany Lions head coach isn’t on the hot seat quite yet, but it’s getting warmer, with multiple columns—including one from this Big Ten writer—pointing to 2016 as a potentially defining season in Franklin’s State College stint.
“Fans and as coaches and as players, it doesn’t always happen at the rate we want it to happen,” Franklin said this spring. “At a place like Penn State with the history and the traditions and everything we’ve been through—I think that’s part of it.”
At the moment, CoachesHotSeat.com slots Franklin as the No. 40 coach in its hot-seat rankings, still considered “safe for now,” but right on the cusp of earning “edge-of-hot-seat” status. He’s only 10 spots removed from the actual hot seat, according to the site, and with Franklin trending in the wrong direction, there’s no telling how much additional heat an underwhelming 2016 season would add.
“I love the fact that we have such high expectations. I do. I love that,” Franklin said. “It’s something, when you’re at a place like Penn State, you have to embrace.”
To Franklin’s credit, he’s done that. But even he might admit it may have been better to temper expectations, given the situation he inherited in 2014 as Bill O’Brien’s replacement. After Joe Paterno held the Nittany Lions head coaching job for 45 years, Franklin became Penn State’s second head coach in three seasons, with sanctions limiting him to 75 scholarships in his first season and 80 in his second.
As a result, the Nittany Lions have had some issues with their depth chart, particularly on the offensive line, as walk-ons and JUCO transfers have created a patchwork unit in each of the past two years. It’s not a coincidence Penn State ranked 124th and 113th in sacks allowed in 2014 and 2015, respectively, hardly giving the Nittany Lions offense a chance to succeed in its first two seasons under Franklin.
“I don’t think people understand the importance of competition at every single position throughout our program and really anywhere,” Franklin said of his offensive line depth this spring.
But even if the Penn State offensive line begins to live up to expectations, the timing of a potential make-or-break season could not have been worse for Franklin.
While he never seemed like a great fit in Franklin’s system, quarterback Christian Hackenberg is heading to the NFL after having served as Penn State’s starting signal-caller in each of the past three seasons. On defense, the Nittany Lions have lost the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year in Carl Nassib, second-round pick Austin Johnson and a versatile and experienced defensive back in Jordan Lucas.
Altogether, Penn State will have to replace nine combined starters on offense and defense from a year ago. Breaking in a new starting quarterback will only heighten the task of making a splash in the ultra-competitive Big Ten East, where Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan have solidified themselves as the division’s top three teams.
On paper, the Nittany Lions appear to be a team building toward 2017, with 2016 likely to be marked by growing pains. But in his first two years, Franklin may not have bought himself that much time, although he does deserve credit for landing top-25 classes in his first two recruiting cycles and bolstering his roster with the likes of Saquon Barkley and Miles Sanders, the top running back in the 2016 class.
But for as well as Franklin has recruited, and even with the extenuating circumstances he’s dealt with, he’s not blameless in the disappointing consecutive 7-6 seasons he’s started his Penn State career with.
Not only have clock-management issues consistently plagued the Nittany Lions under Franklin, but the losses of defensive coordinator Bob Shoop and offensive line coach Herb Hand and the firing of offensive coordinator John Donovan leave Penn State dealing with no shortage of turnover on its staff in 2016.
Sustaining stability in State College was never going to be easy, but Franklin hasn’t helped matters. And when that’s factored in with everything else he inherited upon arriving in Happy Valley, it may leave him with a shorter leash—or warmer seat—than he may ultimately deserve at season’s end.
Is that fair?
Not necessarily. Even for his faults, it’s not hard to see Franklin was facing an uphill climb, even if he hasn’t helped his cause via unrealistic expectations or on-field errors.
But in college football coaching, what’s fair is irrelevant. And no matter how levelheaded your approach, it’s becoming easier to see that 2016 will mark a pivotal point in Franklin’s time in Happy Valley, one way or another.
Ben Axelrod is Bleacher Report’s Big Ten lead writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BenAxelrod. Unless noted otherwise, all quotes were obtained firsthand. Recruiting class rankings courtesy of 247Sports‘ composite.
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