Five takeaways from James Franklin’s weekly press conference:
1. Culture club: Some Penn State players, most notably WR Jahan Dotson, questioned the team’s unity in the wake of Saturday’s loss to Maryland, which dropped the Nittany Lions to an unthinkable-not-long-ago 0-3.
“I can't talk about the culture that has led to all of our success over the last six years and over the last four years, the most success in the Big 10 era of Penn State football, and then when we have challenges, not say that that's part of it,’’ Franklin said.
“It is (part of it), and we’ve got to take a hard look at all of it. I don’t want (this) to be misinterpreted, but there’s been a lot of factors in 2020. And if you’re not careful, a lot of those factors can become distractions.’’
Having said that, Franklin said he will continue to “lead with love,’’ a term he employed about a dozen times Tuesday.
“I never want to feel like I’m making excuses,’’ Franklin said, but added a moment later, “You guys are asking tough, but fair questions. I want to make sure (my answers) aren’t divisive for our team and our coaching staff. I’m going to continue to lead how I’ve always lead, and that’s with love.’’
2. The void in Franklin’s life: Exchanging small talk with a reporter Tuesday, Franklin said he was, “doing good.’’
He stopped a moment later to amend that.
“I shouldn’t have said that,’’ he said. “I wouldn’t say I’m doing good, … that’s probably not an honest answer.’’
Franklin acknowledged that he’s generally blessed; he is, after all, making $6 million a year to coach football. But he also admitted that “I have not done a great job of managing my family being gone.’’
Franklin’s wife and daughters are living away from State College, so that they can safely manage his daughter’s sickle cell disease in the pandemic.
“They’re my fuel. I go home, and they’re able to pour into me,’’ he said.
Franklin said he has addressed that with his staff and with the team and finally, the other night, with his wife.
“I’ve been trying to insulate her from it, feeling that if I went to her with it, that would be putting it on her plate,’’ he said. “But I’m not the best actor, so it wasn’t working anyway, but we had a really good conversation and that helped.’’
3. Quarterback controversy: To answer the inevitable question about struggling football teams, no, Sean Clifford, Penn State’s starting QB, is not going to be replaced.
Things might still change a bit behind center.
“We need to get Will (Levis, Clifford’s backup) involved in a lot of different ways,’’ Franklin said. “The hits that Sean is taking, to help Sean out, and also to keep investing in Will. Will’s earned that.
“Will can chuck it. So I think if you put that other quarterback in there, everybody assumes it’s going to be a run, but putting that guy and then being willing to take a shot down the field, Will has the ability to do that.’’
4. On the run: Franklin was of course asked about the struggling running game, and did not focus his response overly on the offensive line.
“Obviously we’ve got to be more physical at the point of attack,’’ he said. “And then I think we’ve got to break more tackles.
“The funny thing is, those two things are complimentary. If you get more push, you create more space, you’re going to create more big runs.
“But the other thing is a running back breaks three or four tackles and creates an explosive play for a touchdown, that motivates the offensive line.’’
Franklin did point out - not making excuses, but reciting facts - that the team’s best two running backs, Journey Brown and Noah Cain - are out indefinitely with health issues.
Referring to new offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca, Franklin said, “What I know he wants to do, it starts with the run game. Then the RPO and the play-action pass. They all come off (the run), and that’s where you create the explosive plays, and get into manageable third-down situations, and that’s also where you wear people down.’’
5. Freiermuth here for the duration: In his own interview session Tuesday, Penn State tight end Pat Freiermuth said emphatically he would not consider opting out of the season to prepare for the NFL.
“Not surprised at all,’’ Franklin said, “because Pat has been awesome since the day he stepped on our campus. When he decided to come back, Pat was in. This is how he’s wired.
Franklin added that, “It’s sad, for college football, that people are even asking the question. I’m not saying it’s not a fair question, ...I understand that it’s the reality of 2020. But I also think it’s sad.’’