By Jourdan Rodriguez
CHICAGO-“Overall, I think this is an exciting and pivotal time for Penn State football.”
Head coach James Franklin gripped the sides of the podium as he spoke, planted squarely in front of almost 200 Big Ten Media Day reporters from all over the conference in a ballroom-turned-presser-venue.
“Obviously our first year being back to the 85 scholarships, which is significant,” he said. “I think it’s really going to be important for the development of our guys, development of our program as a whole.”
It’s the “wait-and-see” approach Franklin has been preaching since he arrived and Penn State’s NCAA sanctions, levied four year ago last Saturday, were lifted.
After back-to-back 7-6 seasons, Franklin enters his third year with a “year one” mentality; meaning that it’s the first year the team will have a set of players on the field that hadn’t been affected by those sanctions — “the full 85,” which adds necessary depth and experience to the roster in key positions.
“Our first year we had a one-deep with maybe a walk-on behind him. Last year it was a two-deep, but the guy behind was a redshirt that you’d hope to preserve. Well, now you got a redshirt freshman who is still young, but he’s able to go in and compete.” James Franklin on Penn State’s post-sanction depth.
“Competition and depth at every position, which we had not had,” he said. “(For example), when we got the job we had nine scholarship offensive linemen. We’re up to 17 offensive scholarship linemen now.”
It’s also the first year that the fruits of some redshirt decisions Franklin made when he first arrived will start to show.
“I don’t know if a lot of other people would make those decisions,” he said. “I think that a lot of people, if you’re only at 65 scholarships, you play everyone you can just because you don’t have enough bodies. Even last year at 75 scholarships, we made the decision to redshirt as many as we could, again, everybody wants short-term results. But I felt that was in Penn State’s best interest long-term.”
Franklin said that “some of the growing pains” the team went through the past two years won’t be as prevalent, despite the fact that the team is “still way out of whack in terms of number of seniors.”
“But we do have more experienced guys now. Our first year we had a one-deep with maybe a walk-on behind him. Last year it was a two-deep, but the guy behind was a redshirt that you’d hope to preserve. Well, now you got a redshirt freshman who is still young, but he’s able to go in and compete.”
Note: Penn State has not actually filled its 85 scholarships. By Franklin’s last count, the team is at 82.
“Most people aren’t, unless you’re in the business of oversigning like crazy, which, we’ll never be that aggressive,” said Franklin. “If you’re willing to be that aggressive to get to the 85, you’re also going to have to be willing to have tough conversations (to redshirt players) for the years that you’re over. You’ve got to be careful doing that.”
Penn State joined ranks with other teams in the conference to mourn the passings of Nebraska punter Sam Foltz and former Michigan State punter Mike Sadler, who were killed in a car crash on Saturday.
“Devastating to hear that news,” said Franklin. “I’ve been through that in my coaching career as well (Franklin lost a player in a car crash while at Idaho State) and I don’t think it’s something you ever are prepared for or can handle.”
Nebraska head coach Mike Riley and his players withdrew from media day as a result of the event. Each of the coaches who spoke during Monday’s podium sessions took a moment in their speeches to offer their condolences to the school and the families and friends of the young men, except for Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh.
Wartman-White ready for action
“I don’t know, it’s a knee. It works.”
Senior linebacker Nyeem Wartman-White was in Penn State’s media contingent along with linebacker Brandon Bell and center Brian Gaia, and spoke about the torn ACL that ended his season in the team’s first game of last year. Wartman-White had surgery to repair the ligament and has been rehabbing up to this point.
Franklin said that while the ‘backer will be limited in fall camp, he expects him to be one of the front three at the position in the fall alongside Jason Cabinda and Bell. Wartman-White was supposed to take over the middle linebacker position before he got hurt, but Cabinda has since found himself a home in the role — Wartman-White said where he goes doesn’t matter (Penn State’s ‘Mike’ and ‘Will’ linebacker positions are very similar as it is); he’s just ready to get back out there after a long and frustrating healing process.
“I could’ve acted like it was me against the world,” said Wartman-White of his journey back to health. “No. I’m a positive person. I didn’t want people to see me moping, feeling sorry for myself. I don’t like that.”
Barkley and Co. buzz-worthy
“There are a lot of players at a lot of different positions that may have one or two characteristics that you get excited about,” said Franklin. “There may be a running back who’s fast. Or a running back who is short, but elusive. You find guys who can run for power, but can’t make you miss. He’s a guy that, in my 22 years, has probably the most desirable traits that you can look for.”
He was talking, of course, about rising sophomore running back Saquon Barkley, who was selected as one of 10 players (and the only underclassman) to the Big Ten’s Preseason Honors list.
Barkley rushed for 1,076 yards during his freshman season, but he’s far from the only threat Penn State has in its running back stable.
“Everybody talks about Saquon Barkley, and everybody should be talking about him, but I think Mark Allen is a guy we have a lot of confidence in,” said Franklin. “Andre Robinson is a guy we redshirted, a lot of confidence in. And then obviously Miles Sanders coming in.”
Franklin said that Barkley also has studied Heisman favorite, Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey, and has requested to contribute on special teams — and the head coach plans to give him a shot on the unit.
Franklin updated the status of a few position changes, notably that of running back Johnathan Thomas moving to linebacker. Bell said that Thomas told him he actually suggested the move to the staff, and after mulling it over, they decided to make it happen based on the difference in depth between the two position groups.
“Yeah, Johnny is definitely big enough,” said Bell.
“Johnathan’s the one guy body-wise that could move to that position and handle it,” agreed Franklin.
Quotable: “When Trace (McSorley) is with the twos and Tommy (Stevens) is with the ones, it’s all about ‘who makes those around him better?’” Franklin, on a major factor in choosing a starting quarterback this fall.