Five takeaways from James Franklin’s weekly news conference

By Audrey Snyder/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 2 days ago

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. 

“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.

“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: and Twitter @audsnyder4.

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Penn State DT Austin Johnson mum on NFL Draft

By Audrey Snyder/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 2 days ago

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Defensive tackle Austin Johnson smiled and said he’s focused on closing out the season in the best way possible to send the seniors out on a high note. 

Of course the Lions’ junior defensive tackle could also be coming down the homestretch of his own collegiate career, one where his production this season helped skyrocket his NFL Draft stock where if he would choose to declare he’s been ranked among the top-five tackles in the country by CBS Sports and could be a first or second-round pick. At 6-3, 325 lbs. with a rare combination of strength and speed to match, Johnson will likely project ahead of senior line mate Anthony Zettel, who moved inside from defensive end last season and will likely have questions to answer about his size during the NFL Draft process. 

“I really don't pay that much attention to it,” Johnson said of his draft potential. “My mom has kind of the Google alert. She puts my name and has a Google alert, so that's pretty funny. She sends me stuff, I look at it, and just kind of keep on going on about my day. It's about this team. This is where I am right now. Yeah, it's just about this team and making this year for the seniors good just by winning this game.”

Last week junior QB Christian Hackenberg, a projected early-round draft pick, said he too wasn’t thinking past the end of the season.

Audrey Snyder: and Twitter @audsnyder4.

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Monday thoughts: Has Penn State's o-line and special teams taken steps forward this season?

By Audrey Snyder/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 3 days ago

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Last I checked Thanksgiving is this week and Penn State has one regular season game left. Of course there’s a bowl game after that and James Franklin was correct when he said after the game that this team needs every practice and every meeting the rest of this season. 

It’s indeed November and as I wrote in today’s Post-Gazette many of Penn State’s problems aren’t new and they didn’t show up overnight. For much of this season and last they’ve dealt with a porous offensive line and poor play on special teams. 

The trip to East Lansing, MI. to play No. 6 Michigan State will complete a three-game stretch where Penn State played ranked opponents in Northwestern, Michigan and of course Michigan State. The puzzling thing to me is looking at this Penn State team and trying to figure out if the struggles of the offensive line or the special teams have been more problematic this year? Both areas have been bad this season and this comes after it was a major point of emphasis in the offseason.

Remember the “world tour” special teams coordinator Charles Huff took in the offseason to visit with and learn from numerous NFL teams about how they handle their special teams?

Remember the school record 44 sacks Penn State’s offensive line surrendered a year ago and how that number was used as motivation for the offensive line all offseason? Well, a year later I really can’t say with certainty that Penn State is better off in either area. Christian Hackenberg was sacked 36 times this season —and 101 times in his three-years under center— and with two games remaining that school record (44) could be within reach. The special teams surrendered a 55-yard kick return during a critical point in the game and a fumbled punt deep in their own territory made way for seven points for the Wolverines. 

Penn State’s offensive line additions this season included graduate transfer Kevin Reiner who wasn’t able to crack the starting lineup and besides contributing on special teams was a non-factor. Left tackle Paris Palmer, the top rated junior college offensive tackle in the country, has struggled against some of the better defenses Penn State faced and was pulled in the third quarter on Saturday after these back-to-back plays:  

Penn State moved right tackle Andrew Nelson to left tackle and put Brendan Mahon at right tackle, but things didn’t get much better up front:

What went wrong on the four sacks on Saturday?

  1. Tight end Brent Wilkerson was just beaten as the defender looped around him to close in on Hackenberg
  2. The pocket collapses as RB Saquon Barkley was pushed backwards and rather than throwing the ball away Hackenberg tries to spin out of it to keep the play alive but just ends up going even farther backwards. 
  3. Left tackle Paris Palmer was beaten (video clip above)
  4. Michigan brings a five-man rush and right tackle Brendan Mahon can’t hold up while center Wendy Laurent is driven backwards before slipping, thus creating the Hackenberg sandwich. (video clip above)

Yes, this Michigan defense is one of the best in the country, but take away Saquon Barkley’s 56-yard first-quarter run (Andrew Nelson and Brian Gaia did a nice job getting their guys to the ground to spring him) and for most of the afternoon the line was getting pushed around. Center Wendy Laurent was driven backwards a few times and the most telling play of Penn State’s inability to run the ball against the stingy Michigan defense was down around the goal line when the Lions beefed up the line with a jumbo seven-man front, plus o-lineman/fullback Derek Dowrey and an extra blocking tight end. With their biggest bodies on the field (Paris Palmer checked back in for the play too) they got no push and the Barkley rush actually lost three yards. 

Other thoughts: 

Why is Penn State hesitant to change punt returners? 

DeAndre Thompkins, a speedy redshirt freshman, lost four fumbles this season and after he lost the one against Michigan Penn State made a switch. Back-up returner Gregg Garrity, a walk-on from North Allegheny High School, came into the game and returned the next punt eight yards. 

I guess freshman Brandon Polk, one of the team’s best threats in open space, probably hasn’t been consistent enough in practice (or, maybe they haven’t even repped him there since camp?). Running bak Mark Allen, another punt return option in the summer, hasn’t played in four of the last five games. This might not matter much given the issues on special teams as a whole, but I was surprised that Garrity, who if I recall correctly hasn’t even traveled to all of the road games, was next in line. Makes me wonder what they would’ve done had this happened on the road and who along with Garrity and Von Walker are their other punt return options? 

Can tackling improve in one week?

Off the top of my head I can’t think of a game where Penn State tackled worse this season. James Franklin said after the game he thought at times the tackling was good. I’m curious to see on Tuesday, after having a chance to watch the film if he’s going to say differently. During the course of a game he’s got probably 50 other things to keep an eye on, but the tackling stood out to me as an issue.

The cornerbacks struggled on the perimeter as John Reid and Grant Haley, who have both done well in coverage for much of the season, weren’t in great positions to make tackles and/or they couldn’t make the tackle when they were in a good position. Penn State says tackling is emphasized every day in practice yet the execution, with a team that was as fresh as it’s been coming off a bye week, wasn’t there. 

Kick coverage can’t keep having lapses

Jourdan Lewis did his part to answer the bell when Penn State pulled within five points. The Lions’ special teams, like it did against Northwestern when it gave up a 96-yard kick return for a touchdown, once again surrendered a huge play, this time allowing Lewis to break free for a 55-yard return that sparked a touchdown drive. The return was something else and so was Penn State’s tackling on the play.

The positive was earlier in the game Penn State’s Von Walker blocked a punt, but the PSU kick coverage can’t continue to have errors like this. Remember, Penn State uses a lot of starters on special teams, so this shouldn’t be an area that’s blamed for having a lack of talent or depth. 

Will year three be any different, or is it really about year four?

Of course there are two games left and the always important 15 practices that come with bowl prep, but let’s just look ahead here and think big picture for a second. It takes time to build a program and James Franklin stressed that since he arrived 22 months ago and said generating hype while managing expectations is one of the most difficult parts of his job. 

When Franklin arrived he talked about year three being the year where everything was in line as far as rebuilding scholarship depth and having those offensive linemen who redshirted as true freshman a year ago ready to roll. That’s next year. Assuming QB Christian Hackenberg declares for the NFL Draft after this season Penn State will have to break in QB Trace McSorley, a redshirt freshman this season who entered in mop-up time and for the occasional play after Hackenberg has been sent to the sideline after taking a big hit. With a new QB comes inevitable growing pains.

Penn State will also need someone to step in at left guard for senior Angelo Mangiro, or they could move center Wendy Laurent to guard and work in a new center. The rest of the line has to take a big step forward, which based off the way things went this season hasn’t cut it. Really, maybe year four, (likely McSorley’s second year as a starter, Saquon Barkley’s junior year) is a better indicator of where this program is headed and whether or not the talented recruiting classes will develop and mature in the way Penn State needs them to?

Who knows if Franklin will make any changes to his coaching staff this offseason and really it’s difficult to tell if it’s coaching, players not executing, a lack of talent at some of these spots or a combination of all three. In some instances, take the tight ends for example, I don’t think it’s on offensive coordinator John Donovan (who also is the TE position coach) if his players don’t catch the ball. It’s a lack of focus and a lack of execution that falls on the players.

Of course the offense as a whole though, ranked 111th in the FBS and 126th (27 percent) on 3rd down conversions raises a lot of questions about whether or not Donovan and his offense, which was problematic last year too, will be around for year three. 

How can Charles Huff (RB coach/special teams coordinator) be evaluated when using two walk-on kickers and two walk-on punters? That’s part of the hand he was dealt, but I don’t give PSU a pass on the kick coverage issues though and that’s been magnified in the last two games. With two scholarships tied up in a kicker and a punter in the incoming 2016 class help should be on the way. As I said last year with the offensive line (looks like we all might’ve been fooled a bit there....) special teams has to get better, right?

What is offensive line coach Herb Hand really working with? His most versatile player (Angelo Mangiro) was moved from center to guard and his best player, right tackle Andrew Nelson, missed time because of various injuries and on occasion was moved to left tackle. Brendan Mahon was taken of the starting lineup, Paris Palmer has been inconsistent protecting Hackenberg’s blindside and Brian Gaia, once a defensive lineman, has also struggled. This makes me wonder about the developing talent behind these guys and if any of those players who will be redshirt sophomores next season will be ready to challenge for spots. What Penn State has out there now has to be their best, but how much better are they and is this entire team from last year to now?

Measuring growth and development of this entire team will continue to come into focus for the final two games, especially as the Lions then shift their focus to bowl prep and the valuable reps that come with it for many of the younger players. 

Audrey Snyder: and Twitter @audsnyder4.

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Penn State WR Chris Godwin on loss to Michigan

By Audrey Snyder/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 5 days ago

Audrey Snyder: and Twitter @audsnyder4.

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Upon further review: Examining Penn State’s 28-16 loss to Michigan

By Audrey Snyder/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 5 days ago

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Brandon Polk took the ball to the edge for a gain of five yards, but Michigan’s Jarrod Wilson was able to make a big-time play by forcing the speedster to the boundary and getting him out of bounds at the one. 

Christian Hackenberg was unable to connect with DaeSean Hamilton on the next play, bringing out kicker Tyler Davis who converted on three field goals of 24 yards or less. It was a series of struggles for the Lions in the redzone Saturday afternoon against Michigan, ones where the Lions loaded the offensive line to the left side while Saquon Barkley ran to the right. Hackenberg had tight windows to try and fit the ball into as the defensive backs blanketed the receivers. The wildcat — the Lions’ most successful rushing formation two weeks ago against Northwestern— was stuffed back into offensive coordinator John Donovan’s bag of options.

“We were not able to run the ball consistently today whether it was traditional runs or wildcat,” Franklin said. “By the time the ball carrier got the ball there was someone in his face. We tried to do some new things with the jet sweep off the wildcat. 

“We were one-on-one on the edge, their guy had enough speed to keep it to a minimal gain, but we weren’t able to be consistent enough in the run game and it showed in the red-zone, we had too many field goals.”

When the field tightened and the Lions had less real estate to work with in the redzone here’s a recap of what happened:

Opening drive: 1st and goal at the Michigan 9:

  • Saquon Barkley rush +1
  • Saquon Barkley rush -1
  • Squon Barkley rush +3
  • 23-yard field goal from Tyler Davis

Why all three runs? Well, that wasn’t the plan but the based off what Michigan was showing Hackenberg used the run-pass checks to check into runs. “It ended up being three runs, but they weren’t all three run calls, they were checked,” Franklin said.

4th quarter: 1st and goal at the Michigan 3:

  • Hackenberg incomplete pass intended for Geno Lewis
  • Saquon Barkley rush for -3 yards
  • Hackenberg pass incomplete intended for Kyle Carter
  • 24-yard field goal from Tyler Davis 

4th quarter: 1st and 10 at Michigan 20 (following a Penn State timeout)

  • Hackenberg pass to Barkley +14
  • Hackenberg pass incomplete intended for Brandon Polk
  • Brandon Polk rush +5
  • (3rd and goal at Michigan 1) Hackenberg pass incomplete intended for DaeSean Hamilton
  • 18-yard field goal from Tyler Davis

Why not go for the touchdown there with Penn State trailing 21-13?

“At that point we had a hard time in the redzone and punching it in so we thought the field goal was the best decision,” Franklin said. 

Where was DE Carl Nassib?

Carl Nassib’s streak of having at least one sack in every game this season came to a close Saturday after he played on the first series but wasn’t in the game after that. 

Remember, Nassib didn’t play at the end of the Northwestern game after setting the school’s single season sacks record (15.5) and while Franklin doesn’t discuss injuries he did say Nassib was limited this week. 

“I could tell Friday in the walkthrough he wasn’t feeling great, but he wouldn’t tell us that,” Franklin said. “You could tell Saturday in the beginning of warmups that he wasn’t feeling great. Once we saw that he wasn’t going to be able to go and help us and help himself then we made the change and pulled him out.” 

A little something extra

This is supposed to be the deepest receiving corps Penn State’s had in Christian Hackenberg’s three-year tenure— at least that’s what WR coach Josh Gattis said in August— and when called upon to make a play sophomore Saeed Blacknall did his job. 

The 25-yard second-quarter touchdown was Blacknall’s first of the season and just his sixth catch of the year. He posted four catches for 101 yards against San Diego State this year and also had a 38-yard catch against Maryland. This touchdown however, coming against Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers meant a little bit more, said Blacknall. 

“It goes a little deeper than than because in high school I used to train with him, so obviously we are from the same area, same state, and we got highly recruited,” said Blacknall, who played his high school football at New Jersey’s Manalapan High School. Peppers starred at Paramus Catholic. “We used to talk [about the] game, prior to the schools that we are at now, so it was a little more than that.” 

Rivers picks Penn State

This was the biggest recruiting weekend of the year for Penn State and the Lions picked up a verbal pledge from three-star linebacker Dylan Rivers, who announced his verbal commitment on his Twitter account prior to kickoff. 

The Stephens City, Va. class of 2017 prospect had scholarship offers from Arizona, Clemson, Pitt, West Virginia and Vanderbilt, among others. Rivers, a three-star prospect, is the second member of the 2017 recruiting class, joining quarterback Sean Clifford who gave Penn State his verbal pledge in July. 

Bowl season heating up

Representatives from the Holiday Bowl, Music City Bowl and Peach Bowl were all slated to be at the game. With Penn State’s loss Saturday and a game with Michigan State on tap the Lions very well could be looking at options like the TaxSlayer Bowl (Jacksonville), Music City (Nashville), Foster Farms (Santa Clara) or Holiday Bowl (San Diego). 

Audrey Snyder: and Twitter @audsnyder4.

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