Monday thoughts on Penn State: Finding a coordinator, staff members on the hot seat and bowl options
Penn State and offensive coordinator John Donovan parted ways, with James Franklin announcing the change to his coaching staff Sunday afternoon, less than 24 hours after Penn State’s 55-16 beat down by No. 5 Michigan State.
Offensive coordinator John Donovan during Penn State’s spring practice in 2015. (Audrey Snyder/Post-Gazette)
Saturday’s loss to the Spartans was actually one of the better games of the year for Penn State’s offense as the Lions racked up 418 yards of total offense, but Franklin needed to change something or someone and this offense, one that wasn’t able to succeed with a 1,000-yard rusher in Saquon Barkley, nearly a 1,000-yard receiver in Chris Godwin and a potential NFL early round draft pick more than explains who or what the problem was.
Yes, the execution hasn’t been pretty this season either, but from the day Franklin was introduced and said he was “fiercely loyal as a person in general, and I'm going to be fiercely loyal to the guys that I've worked with in the past,” clearly there was going to be come a point in his coaching tenure where Franklin would have a tough personal and professional decision to make with a guy who has been part of his staff for the last five years.
I can’t imagine that parting ways with Donovan was easy for Franklin, but like Franklin and the staff say when they’re reviewing film with players they say they’re critiquing the performance and not the person. While Donovan wasn’t made available to media more than 8-to-10 times in his nearly two years in town, there was no positive spin left to put on this offense, one that finished this season 108th of 127 FBS teams in total offense.
But, moving forward in the search to find Donovan’s replacement Penn State will have some talented skill positions to sell a new coordinator on, plus there is no shortage of talent in the pipeline, at least not on paper anyway. But, while Penn State is off schedule or maybe on (Franklin has said both this season, but by the looks of it I’d say they’re behind) entering year three, which is the year Franklin emphasized since he arrived, there will be a new coordinator to adapt to.
Likely there will be a new QB too, considering Christian Hackenberg has the option to declare for the NFL Draft if he so chooses. So, year three on one side of the ball at least will feature something, or at least someone, different. Penn State has a mobile quarterback in redshirt freshman Trace McSorley and another mobile one in his backup Tommy Stevens. QB Jake Zembiec is a PSU verbal pledge and finding a coordinator who runs a similar system, or at least uses the same type of personnel will be key.
It’s no secret the short, quick passing game was difficult for Hackenberg to adapt to and with new terminology likely in place with a new offense look for the Lions to spend this winter figuring out the new lingo. And, since it’s popped up several times on Twitter, I don’t see any scenario where Hackenberg returns to Penn State for his senior season. It doesn’t matter if Donovan stayed or left, the number of hits Hackenberg took —and his draft stock that continued to fall along with the sputtering offense— there’s no need to stay as the Lions continue to rebuild.
QB Christian Hackenberg on what the next few weeks hold for him: pic.twitter.com/7lJUwBh1BK— Audrey Snyder (@audsnyder4) November 29, 2015
This offensive line hasn’t helped matters and while Hackenberg hasn’t said one way or another (in fact he said Saturday night he’s not thinking too much about his future) the reality is his draft stock won’t improve with a senior year here, but the risk of absorbing more big hits and risking injury won’t get much better.
And that leads me to this…..
-Is the change at offensive coordinator the only coaching change Franklin will make this offseason?
It’s certainly a big one and one that pleases many of the fans who have called for the firing of Donovan for much of the last year-plus.
Franklin said both before and after the bowl game the staff will be evaluated and the way Penn State’s special teams and offensive line performed this season could there be a hot seat surrounding RB coach/special teams coordinator Charles Huff and offensive line coach Herb Hand? I think the case can be made that both units haven’t taken a step forward— or at least not a big enough of a step forward to where they’re noticeably improved. Is it the coaching or a lack of talent.
Yes, Huff is working with a slew of walk-on kickers and punters and while kicking isn’t his area of expertise, what can Penn State do to correct the specialists? An incoming scholarship kicker and scholarship punter should help, but how will the return game improve? And, what if Penn State loses kicker Quinn Nordin to Michigan? To me, and this probably sounds a bit crazy, but keeping both specialists in the 2016 recruiting class should be a main priority for Penn State. They’ve lived the alternative and it hasn’t been pretty with the revolving door of kickers and punters.
Yes, losing cornerback Lavert Hill who decommitted from Penn State Sunday night is of course a loss, but it’s not surprising given his brother plays at Michigan, he’s an in-state kid and the way Jim Harbaugh is turning the program around it’s easy to see why he’d want to be a part of it. Hill will make a final decision at the U.S. Army All America game.
Back to PSU’s issues on special teams, Penn State uses scholarship players and a lot of starters and key contributors on special teams so maybe Huff is given another shot with more talented specialists? Still, the return game has been up and down and I kept an eye on WR/punt returner DeAndre Thompkins during warmups Saturday and while the Lions went with the safe option of sure handed returner Gregg Garrity, Thompkins was fumbling punts in warmups, making me wonder why it took four fumbles in games for PSU to make a change? If it shows up in warmups, maybe it’s been problematic in practice this year too? I would think so. So, has he gotten better as a returner? I’m not so sure.
-As for Herb Hand, maybe the blocking scheme is too complex for what he’s working with? I don’t know for certain, but surrendering 39 sacks — and while they’re not all on the o-line — it’s still too much of an issue after the Lions gave up a school record 44 sacks a year ago.
Herb Hand’s offensive linemen will have to take a step forward next season. (Audrey Snyder/Post-Gazette)
Next year Hand will need to find either a new center or left guard to replace senior Angelo Mangiro, so are any of these now redshirt freshman going to be ready to step in? Center Ryan Bates would only be a redshirt freshman, so he might need another year of growing and developing, meaning maybe PSU keeps Wendy Laurent at center and looks to plug in a left guard. Year three once again will be key in determining how the talent in the pipeline is developing.
-And, I expect QB coach Ricky Rahne will have quite a few eyes on him next year too, especially if the Lions are using a new quarterback. Hackenberg’s development stalled with this offense so was it the QB, the system or was the coaching part of the problem? We’ll see. By parting ways with John Donovan it eliminates one issue, but how many more problems remain will be sorted out in the coming months.
-Final thoughts on bowl options:
While it’s unclear who will call Penn State’s plays for the bowl game (I’d guess either o-line coach/run game coordinator Herb Hand would be an option or James Franklin could do it himself), Penn State’s bowl projections, which will be known Sunday evening, are narrowing a bit.
-Holiday Bowl (Dec. 30 in San Diego, Calif.)
-Music City Bowl (Dec. 30 in Nashville, Tenn.)
-TaxSlayer Bowl (Jan. 2 in Jacksonville, Fla.)
At 7-5, Penn State is likely in the mix for either the Music City or the Taxslayer Bowl. Given the strength of the Big Ten (winner of the B1G title game to the playoff, loser of the title game to the Rose Bowl and Ohio State to one of the playoff games) the slotting could then include:
-Michigan (9-3, Citrus Bowl)
-Northwestern (10-2, Outback Bowl)
-Wisconsin (9-3, Holiday Bowl)
-Penn State (7-5, likely the Music City or TaxSlayer)
A potential return to Nashville would certainly be a big sell for the Music City Bowl, but James Franklin likely would want to stay as far away from that as possible. This makes the Jan. 2 Taxslayer Bowl, that kicks at noon and is in Jacksonville, probably as a much more appealing option for PSU.
Audrey Snyder: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @audsnyder4.
Freshman RB Saquon Barkley eclipsed the 1,000 yard mark and WR Chris Godwin will have a chance to do the same as the Lions wait until next Sunday when they’ll learn their bowl destination. The Penn State notebook with more on the Lions’ two bright spots on offense and what went wrong against Michigan State is here.
QB Christian Hackenberg
CB Grant Haley
WR Chris Godwin
Audrey Snyder: email@example.com and Twitter @audsnyder4.
EAST LANSING, Mich. — Where would Penn State’s offense be without freshman running back Saquon Barkley?
Barkley has been the silver lining to an otherwise disappointing season for a Penn State team that Saturday night looked fundamentally flawed and lost at several points and just doesn’t have the talent to keep pace with the mighty Michigan State Spartans. It’s by no means an easy task to slow down Connor Cook and this well-rounded team that’s one of the nation’s best, but Barkley, who rushed for 103 yards on 17 carries, setting a PSU freshman record with 1,007 yards this season, proved yet again he’s a special talent.
On a field where the talent gap and the level of execution from one sideline to the other proved to be drastic, Barkley and sophomore receiver Chris Godwin — who caught 11 passes for 109 yards and a pair of touchdowns — were as steady as they’ve been all season.
When there was a 4th-down conversion on the table Godwin stepped up to move the chains. When the Lions struggled to find the end zone right away riding Barkley into the red zone and a slant falling incomplete to Godwin, Christian Hackenberg went back to his top target on third down for the score.
“I can’t really be happy about my performance because my biggest goal is for us to win as a team and if we don’t win it just kind of takes away from what happens,” said Godwin who has 63 catches for 968 yards this season. “I’m confident we can fix things so we come away from our next game with a victory.”
Barkley, who hasn’t been made available to the media this season per James Franklin’s media policy where freshmen and transfer players are off limits, has acclimated well to the spotlight, teammates said. Much like Hackenberg did three years ago as a bright-eyed freshman, Barkley’s breakout season shows promise for the future. While the Lions’ future will be a focal point during bowl prep Penn State has two young cornerstones to build with.
“I thought he was obviously very talented and he burst on the scene and he made a lot of really good plays,” Hackenberg said of Barkley. “Talent is something you really can’t coach and he has a lot of it and I think you look at his work ethic and that’s something that goes into it. You don’t just rush for 1,000 yards just on straight talent. He’s put in a lot of work and there’s a lot of people that go into that. … It’s awesome for him. … He’s earned everyone’s respect in the locker room at a young age and that’s special.”
Franklin said he did not leave Barkley in at the end of the game because the record was within reach, rather he wanted many of the offense’s young players to take reps with backup quarterback Trace McSorley who entered the game with under 10 minutes left and the score out of reach.
Tracking the tackling
It’s time for the weekly why is the tackling still problematic and what can be done to fix it part of the notebook. It was magnified the last month during the Lions’ losses to ranked opponents and while injuries and depth can account for part of it it doesn’t tell the whole story.
Penn State opted to scale back the contact in practice earlier this season while waiting to make it to their late-season bye week. After the bye parts of the practice schedule remained the same with limited contact while the Lions stressed getting in an athletic position as if they were making a tackling, but not driving their teammate to the ground.
“Everyone has their nicks and knacks, but everyone not getting their full contact in in practice really makes a difference I think,” said cornerback Grant Haley.
Franklin said earlier this week the team was as banged up as it’s been all year. However, every team in late November has issues to overcome so while Penn State might be reeling late in the season the breakdowns in fundamentals weren’t fixed.
The case for Carl
Penn State’s defense shifted tackle Anthony Zettel back to his 2013 position as a defensive end and plugged senior Tarow Barney in at defensive tackle alongside Austin Johnson. Defensive end Torrence Brown checked in after Carl Nassib was taken out of the game after two plays while dealing with what the television broadcast said was a hamstring injury.
Nassib played two plays against Michigan and just two against Michigan State. Defensive end Garrett Sickels didn’t make the trip due to an undisclosed injury and without both starting ends the Lions failed to register a sack or a tackle for loss.
“Not having Nassib and Sickels in there had an impact on us in third down, had an impact on us on first and second down,” Franklin said. “Good players.”
Penn State’s offense was penalized six times and offensive lineman Andrew Nelson, who played left and right tackle Saturday, accounted for three of the penalties. The Lions’ starting offensive line — with Nelson at left tackle, Derek Dowrey at left guard, Angelo Mangiro at center, Brian Gaia at right guard and Brendan Mahon at right tackle— was the same combination it used earlier this season against Buffalo.
The Lions put Paris Palmer in at left tackle in the second half and moved Nelson back to right tackle. The Lions also used Palmer in their jumbo package in the first half, much like they did last week against Michigan too. Still, in the regular season the finale the Lions hadn’t found their best group of five. Hackenberg was sacked twice and the Lions surrendered 39 sacks this season, just five away from tying the school record that was set a year ago.
“Jumping offsides, there was a couple times where they did a good job with their environment in the stadium with the fans where we jumped offsides and now you’re in a first and 15 situation or a 2nd and 15 situation against a good football team so it makes it difficult to stay on schedule, create manageable third-down situations,” Franklin said.
What happens next?
Penn State did mid-season evaluations and James Franklin said the Lions will do staff evaluations again before the bowl game and then after the bowl game as well.
“We’re evaluating every single day, but the evaluation will happen in between now and the bowl and then again after the bowl when the season is over,” he said.
Hack: "I'm not really thinking about my future too much, just focusing on what we need to do to get better." pic.twitter.com/ZQg4NTYVrh— Audrey Snyder (@audsnyder4) November 29, 2015
Franklin also said he will meet with several players in the coming weeks to hash out a plan about their futures. While it would seem likely that standout juniors Austin Johnson and Christian Hackenberg would be at the top of that list, Hackenberg shrugged off questions about his future after the game and said he’s focused on bowl prep, calling it a mini version of spring practice. The Lions will learn their bowl destination next Sunday evening.
“We will have some conversations with a number of guys and come up with a plan that makes sense for them and makes sense for Penn State,” Franklin said. “Look forward to doing that here in the next couple weeks.”
Audrey Snyder: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @audsnyder4.
The pick: Michigan State: 30, Penn State: 10
What to look for: What will Penn State decide to do with this offensive line and will it even matter? The Lions pulled left tackle Paris Palmer last week in the third quarter and James Franklin was noncommittal when asked if Palmer will be back in the starting lineup this week. However, as has been the case for much of the last two seasons, replacing one player has left the door open for others to step in and give up a key play here and there.
Center Wendy Laurent is coming off probably one of the worst games he’s played this season and while Penn State can continue to use Andrew Nelson at left tackle for Palmer the void at right tackle hasn’t been easy to fill with Brendan Mahon stepping in for Nelson.
So, can one of the tackles slow down Michigan State’s Shilique Calhoun who has 8.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss this season? If not, that school sack record of 44 from a year ago that the Lions surrendered could be quickly approaching again this season. Penn State surrendered 37 sacks this season and with two games left who knows what happens up front?
Getting all five rolling at once might see too far fetched at this point, but with little competition on their heels— remember these redshirt freshmen aren’t playing for a reason and they need more time to grow into their roles— the line needs to show some type of improvement after the way it played last week.
Worth mentioning that: James Franklin said his team is as banged up as it’s ever been. Franklin mentioned this Tuesday during his weekly news conference and while he doesn’t discuss injuries and the Lions don’t release an injury report, Penn State needs DE Carl Nassib to be active to have a shot —even if it’s a slim one— at hanging in this game. Nassib played two plays last week before being held out the rest of the game with an undisclosed injury, presumably the same thing that kept him out of the end of the game against Northwestern a few weeks ago.
Penn State’s tackling was shaky for much of the Michigan game and if players are banged up this means the tackling and the run defense could both be exploited if the Lions can’t play through some of these nagging injuries.
On the other side of the ball, RB Saquon Barkley (904 rushing yards) is 98 yards shy of tying Penn State’s true freshman rushing record. D.J. Dozier leads the way with 1,002 yards and Barkley already passed Eric McCoo’s 822 yards, a record McCoo set in 1998.
WR Chris Godwin (52 catches, 859 yards) also has a shot to go over 1,000 yards this season. The sophomore is averaging 78.1 yards per game and it’s hard to believe that last year at this time Godwin had just 19 catches for 198 yards and one touchdown. The last 1,000-yard receiver Penn State had was Allen Robinson in 2013.
Christian Hackenberg in regular season finales has completed 42-of-75 passes for 534 yards with four touchdowns to one interception. One of Hackenberg’s best games of his career was the 2013 season finale against Wisconsin where he completed 21-of-30 passes for 339 yards and four touchdowns in the upset against Wisconsin. However, last year against the Spartans Hackenberg completed just 46 percent of his 45 pass attempts for 195 yards while firing an interception and absorbing three sacks.
Don’t be surprised if: Penn State pulls out a few gadget plays they haven’t used yet this season. The Lions missed on a play last week where if I recall correctly it was Barkley who tossed the ball back to Hackenberg who just under threw a wide open Brandon Polk as some pressure got in No. 14’s face. It had a chance to be a big gain if they would’ve connected and I’d imagine they have something different or a few new variations to use this week. Plays like that and those wrinkles off the speed sweeps that we’ve seen PSU use this season can help to open things up a bit and why not take some of those shots in a game on the road where the Lions really have nothing to lose?
Miss any of the Post-Gazette’s Penn State coverage during the week? Get caught up here:
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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — It might not be easy to see on the surface, but there are positives to take away from Penn State football and the program’s development this season, James Franklin said Tuesday at his weekly news conference.
DT Austin Johnson says he's focused on the present: pic.twitter.com/FHAXcORJfw— Audrey Snyder (@audsnyder4) November 24, 2015
“You've got to look for them, but there's a lot of positives in the program,” Franklin said, before mentioning the team’s community service endeavors and their work in the classroom.
Seeing progress in all the team’s phases, largely including the on-field product, hasn’t been as obvious as fans and even Franklin would like. The offense, ranked 111th in the FBS (337.5 ypg), struggled in the redzone in last Saturday’s loss to Michigan, settling for three field goals on three redzone trips. The offensive line, which contributed to a school record 44 sacks a year ago, is on par to match that total this season, surrendering 36 sacks with two games remaining. Penn State’s special teams continues struggling with kick coverage and hasn’t received steady performances from their kickers or punters for most of the season.
“I think we have improved,” Franklin said. “Again, you look at our conference record, it's better right now. You look at some of the things we've been able to do on offense, defense, and special teams. You look at times we've done some nice things, so I think we have improved. We have more wins right now than we did at this time last year, so there is progress being made.
“Is it to the degree that everybody wants it to be, including myself? No. No, it's not. Is it the pace that everybody wants it to be? No, it's not. But there is progress being made. Our O-line has improved from the beginning of the year. Our O-line has improved from last year.”
Is this the right offensive coaching staff?
James Franklin might have a decision to make after the season ends and whether or not offensive coordinator John Donovan is around for year three of the Franklin-Penn State era has been questioned by fans and the media for much of this season.
I asked Franklin if he thinks this offensive staff he has the right coaches to make this system work and he reiterated that he’s focused on preparing for the Lions’ trip to Michigan State Saturday. However, he wanted it known that he is aware of the team’s problems and the coach who reads seemingly everything said that nobody is taking a more detailed look at the program’s problems than him.
“I want to make sure that you and your fans and everybody are aware, I can identify and I can see the problems and the challenges that we have just like everybody else can, and we're addressing them every single day,” he said. “We're addressing them every single day.”
Addressing the timeout problems
Franklin said in his five years with this coaching staff they’ve never had as many issues with burning time outs as they have this season. Saturday he said after the loss the staff would have a discussion about it and Tuesday he said it’s a combination of the staff needing to do a better job and young players needing to be on the same page.
“I’ve made it very, very clear that those things are going to change moving forward,” he said. “I take a lot of pride in that, and it's an area that we as a coaching staff have got to do a better job of, and that starts with me.”
Franklin took the blame for not calling a timeout soon enough at the end of the loss to Northwestern and Saturday with under six minutes left in the game the Lions were out of timeous, again bringing that issue into focus.
Getting too much push
Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but James Franklin said Penn State’s play on the offensive side of the ball wasn’t physical enough in the trenches. Of course it’s not the first time this season (or last) we’ve heard this as the Lions’ o-line has struggled the last two seasons for a variety of reasons and against the Wolverines’ physical front Penn State had several plays getting pushed around up front.
Franklin wouldn’t say if left tackle Paris Palmer, who was pulled at the end of the third quarter after getting beaten for a sack, will stay out of the lineup when asked. He said they were trying to move players around to create the best match ups and that it wasn’t just one person struggling.
Christian Hackenberg was sacked a school record 44 times a year ago. At 36 this yr with 2 games left. https://t.co/Ty1jZwopCe— Audrey Snyder (@audsnyder4) November 23, 2015
“We're getting there,” he said of the o-line’s progress. “We had a discussion as a staff the other day. You watch our guys in practice in one-on-ones against our d-line in some of the competitive periods that we go against our defense from the beginning of the year to now or from last year to now, it's dramatically improved. But again, not as much as we would all hope. You'd like it to be a little bit faster.”
Tackling all the issues
Penn State’s tackling woes popped up again against Michigan and Franklin said the problems are a combination of things. Players aren’t always swarming to the ball and they’re not always using the right technique. They might over run a player or playing against shifty playmakers —and with this being their third consecutive ranked opponent there’s no shortage of playmakers they’ve gone against.
DE Carl Nassib didn’t play last week beyond the first quarter and while Franklin doesn’t discuss specific injuries, it sounds like a lot of Lions are spending time in the training room this week.
“We’re banged up,” Franklin said while addressing the tackling. “We're banged up right now this week probably more so than we've been in a long time. That's shown up as the season has gone on, but probably more so this week than really in the year and a half we've been here.”
Quotable: On kicker Joey Julius, Penn State’s 265-pound kicker who has taken some hits while trying to make tackles this season: “We've got to either kick it better so the other guys can cover the field, or he's going to have to put a neck roll on.
Audrey Snyder: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @audsnyder4.