Penn State Nittany Lions: James Franklin

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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Penn State has produced a first-team All-Big Ten defender in eight of the past nine seasons, but no Nittany Lions defensive back has made the list since 2008 (safety Anthony Scirrotto). The drought could end this year.

If safety Adrian Amos plays to his potential, it will end.

"I don't know if I've ever coached a player with Adrian's skill set before," Lions defensive coordinator Bob Shoop told ESPN.com. "He’s so big, so strong, so fast. He can contend for first-team All-Big Ten and be a guy who receives national recognition if he pushes himself to the next level."

[+] EnlargeAdrian Amos
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsAdrian Amos' size, speed and versatility make him a key cog in Penn State's secondary.
Shoop has yet to coach Amos in a game, but sees the potential on tape and on the practice field and is setting the bar high for the senior. Amos has the size -- nearly 6-foot-1 and 212 pounds. He has the speed, clocking a 4.43 in the 40-yard dash as a sophomore (unlike 99.9 percent of the population, he actually gets faster as he gains weight). He has the playmaking ability, with four interceptions and 12 pass breakups.

He also has versatility, although where he plays has sparked debate among Penn State fans.

"He's got a lot of things we're all looking for in recruiting, and what people are looking for at the next level in terms of drafting: height, weight, speed," PSU head coach James Franklin said. "He processes information fast as well. There are some guys that will test fast but they don't think fast on the field, so it slows them down.

"He does all those things extremely well."

Whether Amos' unique skills translate at safety remains to be seen. He played predominantly cornerback in high school in Baltimore and had success there early in his Penn State career, earning honorable mention All-Big Ten honors in 2012.

He moved to safety last year to mixed results, as Penn State slipped to 59th nationally in points allowed and 73rd against the pass. Amos moved back to cornerback late in the season and performed well in an overtime win against Illinois, deflecting a pass that led to the clinching interception.

"Amos, his natural position, is corner," then-coach Bill O'Brien said at the time. "I think he's a good corner."

But he's a strong safety again with the new coaches. Shoop's rationale: it's the position a team's best defensive back should play.

"He's a natural safety," linebacker Mike Hull said of Amos.

Amos' take: "I'd say I’m a cornerback but I play well at safety. I can be very, very good at safety. The movements and everything are more natural and they come easily to me."

So which is it: safety or cornerback? Franklin acknowledges that Amos' versatility creates a debate. Amos and Jordan Lucas form an effective tandem at cornerback. Then again, having one standout at both secondary spots could be Penn State's best route. And the Lions coaches seek versatility, perhaps more than any other trait, on a roster where depth remains in short supply.

The truth is Amos can play well at both spots. But the comfort level he displayed during spring practice didn't come from his position.

"If I'm comfortable in the defense, I'm comfortable at any position," Amos said. "This defense allows me to play fast, so I enjoy playing safety in this defense. It allows me to be aggressive. It allows me to be around the ball a lot more, just making more plays.

"When you're a safety and you understand the defense, you play faster."

Amos calls the new defense a "fresh start," and has spent more time studying himself and his teammates on film. Shoop also shows him tape of his former Vanderbilt defenses and how certain unique players similar to Amos moved from safety to corner to nickel to dime.

This spring, they watched Tampa Bay Buccaneers safety Mark Barron, the former Alabama star, shift from covering the slot receiver to being the dime linebacker to working at strong safety and then free safety.

"He's a unique weapon for a defense," Shoop said of Amos. "To use a basketball analogy, you try to get him his touches."

Amos was too banged up to run the 40-yard dash for the new coaches before spring practice, but his goal is to break 4.4 at the next testing session. He believes he can play both secondary positions in the NFL, where bigger cornerbacks are trending and sturdy, physical safeties are still in demand.

But first thing's first. "We want to be the best secondary in the Big Ten," he said.

Elite secondaries have elite players, and Penn State could have one in Amos this fall.

"He has so much athleticism and skill," Hull said. "I haven't seen that out of very many players in the Big Ten. He has the whole package. He just needs to put it all together this year."
The Big Ten's 11-season national championship drought, coinciding with the SEC's ascent to the top of college football, has placed the spotlight on recruiting in both leagues.

[+] EnlargeMeyer
espnWHas Urban Meyer's SEC roots helped him on the Big Ten recruiting trail?
SEC fans point to crystal footballs, surging population and dominance in the national recruiting rankings. Big Ten fans counter with criticisms of SEC oversigning, low academic standards and shady recruiting tactics.

And then we have Urban Meyer and James Franklin.

The two coaches serve as links between the leagues, as both came to the Big Ten from SEC programs. Both coaches also have brought different recruiting approaches to the Big Ten that many label as "SEC-style." Both coaches also have been very successful on the trail early in their Big Ten tenures.

Fans can quarrel all offseason about the recruiting differences between the leagues. But what do top recruits think?

Colleague Tom VanHaaren decided to find out, interviewing several prospects about the Big Ten and the SEC. It's a fascinating Insider piece that you should definitely check out.

I won't give too much away, but the comments by top defensive end recruit Jashon Cornell are particularly interesting. He attributes Franklin's and Meyer's recruiting success directly to their SEC roots.
"The Big Ten needs to recruit harder. They need to really go after the recruits they really need," Cornell said. "They have to hassle you a little bit, on you every single day. That makes recruits think the coaches really want me and I could go there because the coaches want me so bad. That's what the SEC does."
Cornell is from Big Ten country (St. Paul, Minn.) and has multiple scholarship offers from both Big Ten and SEC programs.

There's no doubt Big Ten coaching staffs devote time to recruiting. But are they working hard enough? Are they making the right sales pitch to bring in top players? Do head coaches have the right type of assistants to get it done on the trail?

Check out VanHaaren's piece and send me your thoughts.

Big Ten's lunch links

April, 17, 2014
Apr 17
12:00
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Make up your mind, Mother Nature.
  • Connor Cook now has the freedom to audible at the line of scrimmage for Michigan State, another sign of confidence in the quarterback heading into his second season as the starter.
  • If the problem for Michigan last season was a lack of chemistry, Brady Hoke has a feeling that won't be a problem this fall he leaves spring.
  • Penn State showed off a Wildcat package in its spring game, but James Franklin won't reveal how much he'll use it -- or whether it's got a unique nickname.
  • Iowa offensive line coach Brian Ferentz isn't usually one for hyperbole, so he means it when he calls Brandon Scherff the best player at his position in the country.
  • The Ohio State defense is leaving spring practice with a much better feeling than it did when it left the field after the Discover Orange Bowl.
  • After a long, difficult road, Rutgers offensive lineman Bryan Leoni is pushing for a starting role and a happy ending for his journey.
  • The Purdue offense has undergone a transformation this spring, and the roster has also added some talent to run the system.
  • The union seeking to represent Northwestern football players offered its response to the school's appeal, calling the university's case a "castle built on sand."
  • No matter how big the league gets, the Big Ten is keeping its name.
  • The rebrand of Illinois athletics appears to be a hit, writes Loren Tate.

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

April, 16, 2014
Apr 16
5:00
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It's Wednesday. There's nothing good on TV (except for this). It's mailbag business time.

Ed from State of Rutgers writes: How would you rank B1G head coaches on the hot seat in 2014? Which assistants are in the best position for a head coaching job after this season?

Brian Bennett: Thanks for the question, Ed, and welcome to Big Ten country. We didn't see a single head coach get fired in the Big Ten last season, which was good news. But the way these things go, odds are the league won't make it two years in a row without any pink slips.

Let's answer your question by looking at this in tiers. Tier 1 includes the coaches who absolutely won't get fired this season unless there's some sort of unforeseen major scandal: Ohio State's Urban Meyer, Michigan State's Mark Dantonio, Penn State's James Franklin, Minnesota's Jerry Kill, Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald, Wisconsin's Gary Andersen and Iowa's Kirk Ferentz.

[+] EnlargeKyle Flood
AP Photo/John RaouxKyle Flood could face a difficult first season in the Big Ten, but it might not be enough to cost him his job.
Tier 2 would be the guys who are most likely safe but who could feel some rising temperatures if the season goes awry. That would include: Indiana's Kevin Wilson, who seems to have the Hoosiers on an uptick but who needs to get the team to a bowl soon; Purdue's Darrell Hazell, who almost certainly won't get canned after just two years but can't afford another season as awful as last season's 1-11 debacle; and Michigan's Brady Hoke, who isn't on the hot seat now but who would definitely feel the wrath of fans and boosters if the Wolverines have another 7-5 type year and lose to Ohio State.

Tier 3 covers the coaches actually feeling some heat under their chairs. Let's evaluate them individually:

  • Tim Beckman, Illinois: This should come as no surprise. The Illini showed improvement last season, but Beckman is still just 6-18 and has seen fan support fall off a cliff. Anything less than a bowl game in 2014 could make things really dicey.
  • Bo Pelini, Nebraska: This is a well-documented situation, and many people were surprised Pelini wasn't fired at the end of last season, though athletics director Shawn Eichorst remains hard to read. The good news is that Pelini could have a very good team in Lincoln this year, and he sure doesn't appear to be sweating things this spring.
  • Kyle Flood, Rutgers: He went 9-4 his first season as head coach but just 6-7 with a dismal finish last season. He also has a new boss in town, and the Scarlet Knights will face a very difficult schedule in Year 1 in the Big Ten. He's only making $900,000, so a change wouldn't be too financially painful. The question is whether embattled new athletic director Julie Hermann has enough juice right now to make that call.
  • Randy Edsall, Maryland: This is the toughest call of the tier, as Edsall might have bought himself some time with last season's winning record and has had to deal with injuries to many star players. Yet he's still just 13-24 after three seasons, and life in the Big Ten might not be easy for the Terps. A losing record in 2014 would make things very uncomfortable in College Park.

George K. from Pittsburgh: Brian, I'm disappointed in what you wrote about Joe Paterno winning [the Big Ten coaches' tournament]. There was way too much conjecture in what you said. Please think about it. Then issue a factual restatement, please.

Scott R. from Chadron, Neb., writes: Pretty sure there was voter fraud on that Osborne/Paterno matchup. Am I the only one who noticed there were as many international votes as domestic? And that those international votes were 87% for Paterno? Every other poll on ESPN.com is about 75% domestic, 25% foreign. This one was 50/50, and the international vote was OVERWHELMINGLY for Paterno. Seems a little suspicious.

Brian Bennett: File this one under "You Can't Please Everybody, Vol. 734." For the past two weeks, my mailbag was full of comments like Scott's, claiming some sort of voter fraud as Paterno got a huge international vote against both Tom Osborne and Woody Hayes. I have neither the technical expertise nor the time to figure out whether there was some sort of computer tomfoolery going on. But you'd have to be really naive not to raise an eyebrow at the fact that more than half the votes (17,000-plus) in the title matchup came from outside the United States and that those votes were wildly in favor of Paterno. Maybe there's a simple explanation why so many non-U.S. residents care about Big Ten football -- Italians for JoePa, perhaps?

The bottom line is that we placed no rules on this tournament, other than the most votes wins. If someone was ingenious enough to rig it, more power to them. Paterno certainly had the résumé and accomplishments that were deserving on their own. I had no personal stake in the outcome, and I found it to be a fun exercise to go along with March Madness. I hope everyone enjoyed it.


Andrew from Columbus, Ohio, writes: While it is still possible that Ohio State-Michigan State could be a night game, what prevented it from being in the first batch of announced games? Since it would feature the two most compelling teams in the league from last year, it seems to me that it would be the marquee matchup the B1G has been looking to highlight.

Brian Bennett: Andrew, I can't say I understand all the intricacies here at play, either, except that there are apparently some other details to iron out. That game still seems like a natural choice for a prime-time selection. It's still only mid-April. Stay tuned ...


Mike K. from Penn State writes: With Penn State losing Allen Robinson and Brandon Felder at the WR position, along with some great O-linemen to the draft, do you think the team can still succeed in the Big Ten solely based on defense?

Brian Bennett: I have great respect for what Bob Shoop and his staff accomplished at Vanderbilt and expect him to do a great job as the Nittany Lions' defensive coordinator. From what I saw last year, however, I don't think there's enough top-shelf talent on that defense for Penn State to pull a Michigan State and simply dominate everyone on defense. At least not at a championship level. I don't worry as much about the receiving group, because I think with Geno Lewis, some of the talented freshmen and those tight ends, they can piece together people for Christian Hackenberg to target. My biggest concern is the offensive line, which is thin and has some troubling injuries. It's nearly impossible to win at a high level in the Big Ten without a decent offensive line.


Tommy from Savannah, Ga., writes: March Madness is one of the greatest times of the year, most people live for it. Why wouldn't the NCAA FBS decision makers want something like that with those ratings over the course of a few weeks? Definitely not 68 teams, but eight or 16 teams with a selection show, bracket challenge, Cinderellas, and endless coverage and hype. They already do it for FCS.

Brian Bennett: You'll find no bigger NCAA tournament fan than me, Tommy, and my wife is really happy it's over so she can see me again. Still, it's hard to compare the sports. Football simply is a much more physical game, and so adding more games to the schedule becomes problematic, along with the logistical problems caused by Christmas break and the semester changes. I do believe we will eventually have an eight-team tournament, with the five power conference champions getting an automatic berth along with the top champion of the other leagues plus two wild cards. That's a perfect setup. But it took us decades just to get to a four-team playoff, and that semifinal day on Jan. 1 (most years) will instantly become one of the best days on the sports calendar.

Besides, I could argue college football already has March Madness all fall long, and the ratings reflect that. Before the Final Four began, the NCAA tournament averaged a reported 9.8 million viewers, which was a big increase. By contrast, the Big Ten championship game drew 11.6 million viewers, while the Auburn-Alabama game attracted 13.8 million. The men's basketball final (aired on network TV) between UConn and Kentucky got 21.2 million viewers, compared to 25.6 million for the BCS title game (aired on ESPN) between Florida State and Auburn. We could see record ratings for the inaugural rounds of the College Football Playoff.

Big Ten lunch links

April, 16, 2014
Apr 16
12:00
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Is this heaven? Nope, still Iowa. But happy to be back.

Big Ten Tuesday mailblog

April, 15, 2014
Apr 15
5:00
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It's tax day and you owe me some emails. No refunds granted here, unless you follow us on Twitter.

To the inbox ...

Brutus from The Ninth Circle writes: What's your take on where B1G recruiting stands at the moment, and where do you think it will be, come signing day? I'm not sure which is more surprising, that Penn State is as strong as it is at the moment, or that Ohio State and Michigan aren't that high in the lists. Granted, there is still quite a bit of time to go until signing day, but momentum is important. Do you think this all evens out by signing day and Ohio State takes the No. 1 spot within the B1G?

Adam Rittenberg: Brutus, although the recruiting cycle is accelerated, it's way too soon to draw conclusions about the Big Ten recruiting for 2015. Penn State's early surge is notable because coach James Franklin came in making bold declarations and so far has backed them up. Michigan typically has been a very fast starter and the Wolverines already have five verbals for 2015, led by ESPN 300 cornerback Garrett Taylor. Ohio State often makes its push later on, even before signing day, and has the luxury of being patient. There are pros and cons to racking up a bunch of early commitments.

It's a good thing for Penn State. As running backs coach Charles Huff recently told me, "We're the new girl in school, so a lot of guys want to date us." But I wouldn't worry about Ohio State and Michigan. They'll both be fine.


Brian from Atlanta writes: Adam, I've often seen you support more weeknight and Saturday night games for the B10. On the other hand, I've seen the presidents and ADs in the P12 complain incessantly about how many weeknight and Saturday night games they have. In 2013, they played 33 night games to our 18 (both split equally between ESPN/FOX and BTN/P12N/FS1). Is this a case of the grass always being greener, or is there a sweet spot in the middle?

Adam Rittenberg: Another great question, Brian. Keep 'em coming. It really comes down to what's best for each conference. The Big Ten boasts the biggest stadiums and some of the largest fan bases in college football. It still moves the needle even though on-field performance has been down for some time. The Big Ten should be competing for that Saturday night TV window as often as possible. Until recently, the league has been missing out.

The Pac-12, meanwhile, loses a huge audience when its games kick off after 5 p.m. local time. If you start a game at 7:30 p.m. Pacific time, most of the country has tuned out. There are pros and cons to weeknight games, and I understand the concern about an early weeknight kickoff -- like Oregon-Stanford -- as it’s hard to fill the stands. But TV is king here, and the Pac-12 needs to showcase its product.


Josh C. from Atlantic City, N.J., writes: Hey Adam, Big Rutgers fan here. Couldn't be more excited for the new season in the B1G. In fact lots of people in NJ are talking about the move and better competition. I've heard a lot of talk about "non-existent" RU fans. Do you think the rest of the B1G is underestimating the volume of fans? Whether it be quantity or quality.

Adam Rittenberg: I hope so, Josh, and it's good to hear the buzz is building in the Garden State for Rutgers' Big Ten arrival. I sense that there's a portion of Rutgers fans waiting to come out and support the team when things improve on the field. We saw a lot of enthusiasm for the program during the breakout season in 2006 (Who can forget Jeremy Ito?). Rutgers followed up with several solid seasons before taking a step back in 2013. The Big Ten move should generate excitement and support, especially when teams such as Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin visit Piscataway. But Rutgers needs to perform well to show the Big Ten that its fan base is significant.


Austin from Iowa writes: What are the chances Jake Rudock has the best Career of any quarterback in the Ferentz era with two years to go and a stacked offense matched with a decent Iowa defense in a division with no real power team at the moment? Is it possible for Rudock to really make a name for himself nationally and lead Iowa to a couple of division, maybe conference titles?


Adam Rittenberg: Austin, at first I thought it would be really tough for Rudock to eclipse other Kirk Ferentz-era quarterbacks Ricky Stanzi, Brad Banks or even Drew Tate. Banks had a phenomenal year in 2002 but struggled at times the previous season. Stanzi led Iowa to an 18-4 record as the starter in 2008 and 2009 and had his best statistical season by far in 2010, but the team massively underachieved that fall. Tate had good years in 2004 and 2005 but struggled in his final season in 2006. So yes, Rudock has a chance. I wouldn't say Iowa's offense is stacked, though, and the Hawkeyes must show more explosiveness at the skill positions. A favorable schedule gives Iowa a great chance to reach the Big Ten title game this year, which would put Rudock in the category with the other Hawkeyes QBs mentioned.


Tom from Lincoln, Neb., writes: Adam -- a few months ago a local TV station ran an interview with FauxPelini, but agreed not to show his face or reveal his identity. Turns out he lives in the Chicago area. So I gotta ask: Is it you?

Adam Rittenberg: I wish I were that funny, Tom. No, it's not me. But if I ever locate Faux in Chicago, I'm buying him a beer for bringing me a lot of laughs over the years. I'm quite happy that Bo has regained custody of the cat. I'm allergic to them.
The most exciting day of the Big Ten offseason is here. OK, not really, but it's definitely in the top five.

The first portion of the Big Ten's prime-time schedule is out as ABC/ESPN made its six selections for games to be played under the lights. The Big Ten Network will announce its prime-time picks next week. Additional kickoff times could be announced later this spring or early in the summer.

Here's the ABC/ESPN schedule:

Sept. 6

Virginia Tech at Ohio State, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN

Sept. 20

Miami at Nebraska, 8 p.m. ET, ABC or ESPN or ESPN2

Oct. 4

Nebraska at Michigan State, 8 p.m. ET, ABC or ESPN or ESPN2

Oct. 11

Penn State at Michigan, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN or ESPN2*

Oct. 25

Ohio State at Penn State, 8 p.m. ET, ABC or ESPN or ESPN2

Nov. 1

Illinois at Ohio State, 8 p.m. ET, ABC or ESPN or ESPN2

*-previously announced

A few notes, quotes and observations:

November night games

Contrary to popular belief, the Big Ten never had a strict policy against playing prime-time games after Nov. 1, but most of its schools preferred to keep those games in the first two months of the season. League members have shown an increased willingness to schedule more prime-time games, and after discussing November night contests for several years, we finally have one.

[+] EnlargeOhio Stadium
David Dermer/Getty ImagesOhio Stadium will host its first November night game in 2014.
Although the November matchup -- Illinois at Ohio State -- lacks a wow factor, this is still a positive step for the league. Also, this is not the final list for November prime-time games, as others will be announced in the future.

"There is a real recognition with our coaches, our athletic directors and our fans that prime-time football is very important," Mark Rudner, the Big Ten's senior associate commissioner for television administration, told ESPN.com. "It's important to the conference, it's important to recruiting, it puts you on a big stage.

"It's a big event whenever you have prime-time football."

Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith and coach Urban Meyer both have vocalized their desire for more night games. The Buckeyes get three of them on ABC/ESPN (two home, one road), and possibly more to come. It's the Urban Effect.

Huskers, Lions back in prime

No two Big Ten fan bases value night football at their home venues more than Penn State and Nebraska. The Nittany Lions and Huskers both host prime-time games on ABC/ESPN in 2014 (Nebraska didn't have an ABC/ESPN prime-time game in 2013) and make multiple appearances.

The Nebraska-Miami game should be a fun one, especially given the history between the two programs in bowl games (their last five meetings took place in major bowl games). Nebraska's visit to Michigan State is one of few must-see division crossover contests, so it makes sense in prime time.

Beaver Stadium will be rocking for the Ohio State game as former longtime Penn State assistant coach Larry Johnson makes his return to Happy Valley wearing scarlet and gray. Although Penn State remains ineligible for postseason play, the Lions' value is reflected here with East Division matchups against both Michigan and Ohio State. The Lions' consecutive winning seasons despite the bowl ban, plus the arrival of coach James Franklin, enhance the program's appeal for top TV slots.

No limits on prime-time appearances

Big Ten teams typically have had no more than three prime-time appearances per season, but like the November night games issue, this was more of a preference than a policy. As schools like Ohio State become increasingly more open to night football, the number of prime-time appearances will increase, and will occasionally exceed three.

Wisconsin played four prime-time games (two home, two road) in the 2011 season.

"That three [limit] was really self-imposed," Rudner said. "You could waive it if you wanted to. I don't know if that will be as hard and fast as it was before. They see the value in these big events, these big games."

Additional games/announcements

Some Big Ten prime-time games were previously announced, such as Michigan's Sept. 6 trip to Notre Dame and Purdue's Sept. 13 neutral-site game against Notre Dame. A game time has not been set for Wisconsin's season-opener against LSU on Aug. 30 in Houston, but the game will kick off in prime time and be televised by an ESPN network.

One thing to remember when predicting or analyzing night-game choices: other games being played in the same window. Prime-time kickoffs offer certain benefits, but teams don't like being overshadowed in the late window.
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- James Franklin smiled one last time as he trotted beneath the tunnel, waving goodbye and shouting, "Thanks for coming" to the lingering fans who leaned over the railing.

There's been a lot of reasons for Franklin to smile lately. At the start of the fourth quarter, the PA announcer boomed that a little more than 72,000 fans attended the spring game, which featured fan favorite Christian Hackenberg for just three short series. So far, no scrimmage has garnered a higher attendance. And, before the game, ESPN 300 defensive lineman Adam McLean committed to Penn State -- and half of the scouting services move the Nittany Lions' 2015 class to No. 1 in the nation.

Franklin, the "Pennsylvania boy with the Penn State heart," arrived in Happy Valley just three months ago. And, as the past weekend showed, he hasn't wasted much time in making an impact.

[+] EnlargeJames Franklin
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsAn announced crowd of 72,000 came out to see James Franklin and Penn State's 2014 team.
"I don't think there's any doubt that we're special," Franklin said, referring to Penn State, "and one of the big reasons that we're special is because of the support we get from the community. ... I couldn't be more excited."

Fans fired up their grills and began tailgating as early as five hours before the 1:30 p.m. kickoff. Some opted to stay in the parking lot during game time; about half the crowd left by halftime, once the skill players traded in their helmets for a spot on the bench. Hackenberg ended up appearing for about eight minutes, the top three running backs combined for five carries and the starting offense never once took on the defensive starters. The first team suited up in Blue and, unsurprisingly, beat the White team of backups 37-0.

But the sense of excitement surrounding Franklin and this program was unmistakable. Hundreds of fans, maybe a dozen deep, lined up for the arrival of Penn State's blue buses while several recruits pressed their noses close to the glass from the comfort of the lounge overlooking the scene. "No vacancy" signs dotted the hotels in the surrounding area. And fans literally took off in a sprint to greet players during a 45-minute autograph session; with a crowd of about 5,000, the line more closely resembled a mosh pit.

It was the biggest crowd for the Blue-White Game since 2009, when the Nittany Lions were just three months removed from a Rose Bowl appearance. Because of the current sanctions, Penn State still can't appear in the postseason for another two years -- which really made the excitement surrounding Saturday all the more surprising.

"I can only imagine what a regular season game is like," defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said. And a minute later: "We're trying to take this program to the next level and compete for Big Ten and national championships."

That last line is likely a big reason for the optimism in Happy Valley. Franklin took the dais on Day 1 and vowed a return to national prominence, in addition to dominating the state and region in recruiting. The staff has reminded the media and fans so much of those intentions that Franklin doesn't even need to finish his sentences once he broaches the topic.

Once Penn State's first-year coach talked Saturday about hitting the recruiting trail hard, he stopped abruptly. "We are going to ...," he said, pausing. "Dominate the state," recruits mumbled from the balcony above press row.

"Exactly right," Franklin said.

Franklin's first game at Beaver Stadium almost seemed secondary to the atmosphere surrounding it. There was some "Wildcat," a formation Vanderbilt loved last season but former Penn State coach Bill O'Brien loathed, and a 56-yard double-reverse pass that wideout Geno Lewis swore wasn't rehearsed in practice.

Conversely, some concerns only became magnified. The offensive line -- seemingly the weakest unit on the team -- surrendered nine sacks and the offense failed to find much rhythm. But the thin-rostered line also lost center Wendy Laurent and Brian Gaia to injury in the first half. Counting that pair, the Lions were missing four OL starters in the final two quarters.

But, as is usual with these scrimmages, the game wasn't as much an indicator of the future as it was a show for the fans. And, with Franklin as its ringleader, the game generated as much hype as offseasons filled with BCS aspirations.

"Great crowd, unbelievable support from this community," Franklin said in his opening statement. "I'm not surprised one bit."
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – James Franklin kept many of his skill players off the field for most of Penn State's annual scrimmage, but there were certainly still other aspects to glean from the game.

Christian Hackenberg played in just three series, and Michael O’Connor took over for the rest of the game for the Blue team. Blue, which consisted mostly of starters, ended up with the 37-0 victory -- some players even tugged the victory bell -- as we learned a few more things about the Nittany Lions:

[+] EnlargeDe'Andre Thompkins
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicPenn State freshman De'Andre Thompkins caught one pass and had a 22-yard rush in the spring game.
1. This is an offense that’s willing to do different things. Bill O’Brien hated the Wildcat. Absolutely loathed it. But fans were treated to quite a bit of it Saturday afternoon. The direct snaps to the tailback actually seemed the most effective, as the longest run in the first quarter -- a 19-yard run by Cole Chiappialle -- came from that formation. Franklin was asked whether he had a new, catchy name for the formation. “Yeah, I think we’re going to go with,” he said, pausing slightly for dramatic effect, “Wildcat.”

In the game’s longest play, wideout Geno Lewis took a reverse and threw a ball to a wide-open Matt Zanellato, who sprinted in untouched for a 56-yard touchdown. Lewis said they didn’t run the play once in practice. But Franklin didn’t mind calling Lewis’ name out of the blue -- and Lewis didn’t mind much, either.

2. The offensive line could really be in trouble. Penn State implemented a running clock from the second quarter on, but the gray-jerseyed offensive line gave up nine sacks. The running game also had trouble taking off in the beginning, as both the Blue and White teams combined for 21 yards on their first 16 carries. At one point, Penn State had 12 completions to 10 punts. And it was 0-for-12 on the first dozen third-down attempts. They fared better in the second half, but there was obviously still cause for concern.

Center Wendy Laurent went down with an injury in the second quarter and did not re-enter the game. The severity of Laurent’s injury is unknown and, with Franklin’s policy to not discuss injuries, clarity probably won’t be lended to the situation anytime soon. Offensive guard Anthony Alosi, who is facing criminal charges, is also "suspended indefinitely," according to Franklin.

3. Penn State could utilize more nickel this season. Minutes after the game, Franklin said the Nittany Lions could often operate under a “star” defense, which is similar to the nickel. Basically, he wants to use two true linebackers and a “big safety.” It’s something Franklin said he and the staff are going to evaluate over the offseason -- and that might be a reason why Von Walker moved to linebacker this spring. Walker could earn a role there, possibly as a backup, and he made a nice play in the third quarter by tipping a pass and then making a critical block once it was intercepted.

Defensive line coach Sean Spencer previously said the defense could use some four-DE looks this season, so fans could see some unique things on this unit. Overall, the defense appears to be in good shape. Franklin praised the defensive line several times this spring, and he said Saturday that it’s certainly a little ahead of the offense right now.

4. Kicking game still needs some work. Sam Ficken missed an extra point and Chris Gulla averaged just 39.2 yards a punt on a dozen punts. Assistant Charles Huff said the return game has shown a lot of improvement since the spring, but that was one area that wasn’t showcased Saturday. During punts, for example, the entire return team consisted of just one player making a fair catch. Penn State’s special teams should still be improved from last season, as there’s nowhere to really go but up. Huff wasn’t sure what happened on the missed extra point. Regardless, the kicking game obviously needs to show consistency.
Head coaches from the Big Ten East Division, along with a player from each team, addressed the media this afternoon on teleconferences. The West Division players and coaches spoke Wednesday.

Here's a closer look at the East:

INDIANA
  • Defense has been a lingering Indiana concern for years, but coach Kevin Wilson believes he's starting to see a change, thanks to new defensive coordinator Brian Knorr. The scheme hasn't changed radically, but the Hoosiers return 10 starters there -- and Wilson's seen a promising spring so far with an added focus on competition and communication: "They've for sure held their own on a daily basis -- and, in some ways, probably even better -- against the offense."
  • Wilson believes teams need to invest scholarships into the kicking game, but he thinks it's also too risky to offer recruits straight out of high school. If you look at the NCAA's top 25 kickers, Wilson estimated at least 15 started out as walk-ons. So he's hoping to find some walk-ons who are willing to work for a scholarship, rather than be granted one right away.
  • At 5-foot-7, Shane Wynn is the Hoosiers' leading returning receiver, and he's transitioning to playing the outside. It's been a little different for Wynn, who said he's had to watch more film as a result. He's reading the corners now, instead of the safeties, as just one example.
MARYLAND
  • Maryland coach Randy Edsall is confident in his offense and believes the Terrapins have enough options so that opponents can't focus on just one person. If defenses lock on to wideout Stefon Diggs, then quarterback C.J. Brown can take off running or receiver Deon Long can pick up some slack. "The No. 1 thing I do like," Edsall said, "is we can spread the field."
  • Maryland's staff has already started looking at film of Big Ten teams, so they know what to expect when the conference season begins. Edsall said he wants to at least get a feel for their personnel and what kind of schemes he'll face. He's also confident the Terps will be ready: "We fully expect to be able to compete when we get into the Big Ten this year."
  • Brown said one of the main reasons he committed to Maryland was the coach who recruited him at the time, former Terps assistant and current Penn State coach James Franklin. He's looking forward to squaring off against Franklin this season, and Edsall said there's no question he would like to develop a rivalry with the Nittany Lions.
MICHIGAN
  • The quarterback derby will continue, and Brady Hoke included all three of his options in the discussion heading into the offseason. The Wolverines coach did acknowledge, though, that Devin Gardner “probably would be” the starter if there was a game on the schedule this weekend. There isn’t, so Shane Morris and Wilton Speight will continue to be in the conversation.
  • The first opponent on the schedule will always stir emotions for Michigan fans, but Hoke didn’t attach any revenge or sentimentality to his reasons for wanting to take on Appalachian State in the opener this fall. “We needed a game,” Hoke said. “I thought it would be a good game.” Defensive end Frank Clark was certainly aware of the history between the programs, even though he was still years away from joining Michigan and getting a shot at making up for the upset loss in 2007 -- which he called “shocking” and “shows how hard those guys play.”
MICHIGAN STATE
  • Michigan State is coming off a Rose Bowl victory, but coach Mark Dantonio and quarterback Connor Cook would prefer not to think about that any longer. Dantonio said they've talked a lot these last four months about not growing complacent, and Cook only echoed his coach. "A lot of people keep bringing up the Rose Bowl," Cook said. "But we're past that. We're focusing on the now."
  • The offensive line has made some big strides since January, at least according to Cook. He felt like he had no time in the pocket last spring and said the pass rush was getting to him every time. This spring? He doesn't feel rushed in the pocket, and he thinks that's pretty indicative of how far this line has come.
  • Jeremy Langford earned a lot of praise from Cook, who said the running back has become a much bigger part of the passing attack. "He's improved a lot with catching the ball," Cook said, complimenting Langford's versatility. "He's done so many different things for us."
OHIO STATE
  • There is still work to be done in addressing the most glaring weakness on the team last season, but Urban Meyer called Ohio State’s pass defense “drastically improved” and will be watching closely for more signs of progress in Saturday’s spring game. The Buckeyes will play a traditional game, but the emphasis will be on throwing the football and assessing the skill players on both offense and defense -- giving Meyer a chance to evaluate backup quarterback Cardale Jones in a live setting in addition to checking out the secondary.
  • Arguably the strongest part of last season's team is undergoing a transition without four senior starters, and the offensive line is somewhat of a concern for Meyer heading into the offseason. With guard Pat Elflein the only other player to have earned a first-team slot to play alongside junior Taylor Decker at this point, that competition is likely to spill over into preseason camp in August. Both tackle Darryl Baldwin and guard Antonio Underwood were praised for their work by defensive tackle Michael Bennett, and Billy Price and Jacoby Boren are dueling at center.
PENN STATE
  • Franklin said he knew exactly what he was getting into at Penn State, in terms of the current depth and sanctions. He and former coach Bill O'Brien worked together at Maryland, and he said the two had a lot of honest conversations about the current state of the Nittany Lions. The two have continued to talk since.
  • Derek Dowrey and Brian Gaia are both making transitions from defensive tackle to offensive guard, and Franklin said he has been pleased with their performances so far: "They're doing a good job for us -- and they have to. We're thin at that position."
  • Franklin said he feels especially comfortable with the talent at running back and defensive line. Middle linebacker Mike Hull was more specific about naming the players who impressed him, pointing to backup linebacker Gary Wooten and cornerback Da'Quan Davis. Hull said Wooten is always around the football and that Davis, who missed part of the spring with a hamstring injury, has come up with several interceptions.
RUTGERS
  • Another open competition at the most critical position on the field -- quarterback -- is still playing out at Rutgers, and coach Kyle Flood isn’t ready to declare a winner in what would seem to be a wide-open battle. Flood indicated that Gary Nova, Mike Bimonte and Chris Laviano are all “really vying for that first-team job.”
  • The change in conference affiliation has been welcomed with open arms by the Scarlet Knights, who can “feel the energy” as theypractice for their first season in the Big Ten. Defensive tackle Darius Hamilton said the team was already buzzing with excitement about the opportunity, and Flood called joining the league a “positive in every way.” The move also presents the opportunity for a rivalry to develop with new divisional neighbor Penn State, with both Flood and Hamilton citing the proximity between the schools as a bonus.

Spring game preview: Penn State

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10
10:00
AM ET
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Saturday features a full slate of Big Ten spring scrimmages, and we're breaking down each one through Friday. Here's a closer look at what to expect from Penn State's Blue-White Game:

When: Saturday, 1:30 p.m. ET
Where: Beaver Stadium, State College, Pa.
Admission: Free; parking is also free and is first-come, first-served
TV: Big Ten Network (will air at 6 p.m.)
Weather forecast: Mostly sunny and mild, with a high near 67 degrees.

What to watch for: After two seasons of a head-scratching scoring system, where sacks and big plays netted points, James Franklin is taking the spring game back to its roots. It'll be structured like a traditional game, so a math whiz like John Urschel won't have to be on hand to tally the score.

Christian Hackenberg is the unquestioned leader of this offense, and he's the player whom all eyes will be on. He capped off his Big Ten freshman of the year campaign with an upset over then-No. 15 Wisconsin, a 24-point favorite, and big things are once again expected of him. He still hasn't been on campus for a full year, but he has said the college game has finally slowed down for him -- and that should be an unnerving thing for opposing defenses to hear.

The big question mark not just on the offense but on the team revolves around the offensive line. Franklin voiced concern about depth before spring practice even started, and it's only gotten worse. The Nittany Lions have reportedly lost their most-experienced lineman, guard Miles Dieffenbach; right tackle Andrew Nelson has missed several practices and was seen limping Tuesday; and backup guard Anthony Alosi is facing criminal charges and his status with the team is uncertain.

As a result, Franklin said Saturday that the offensive line will wear gray jerseys and likely play for both the Blue and White teams. He's still hoping to field two units with the offensive line, but it's not even known whether Penn State will be able to do that much, at least with scholarship players. Its depth is that concerning.

Elsewhere, Penn State will feature several new faces and feature veterans at different positions. Cornerback Adrian Amos is back at safety, OLB Mike Hull is taking over the MLB spot, and defensive end Anthony Zettel has moved inside. On offense, Hackenberg will have to focus on some new targets, notably Geno Lewis and freshman early enrollee De'Andre Thompkins. Thompkins has already turned heads, as he clocked the fastest 40-yard dash time on the team. His ability will be showcased for the first time Saturday, as will that of backup quarterback Michael O'Connor, whom was ranked as the No. 6 QB recruit in the nation.

Big Ten Tuesday mailblog

April, 8, 2014
Apr 8
5:45
PM ET
Coming at you from America's dairyland. Don't forget to join our Twitter minions.

Inbox time ...

Jimmy H. from Six Feet Under a Driveway in Grosse Point writes: We can probably all agree that the current system does exploit the players. Well, what if say, 2 percent of football revenues went to the players? You could even pay the money out in limited checks while in school, or perhaps after graduation. Alternatively, would it radically change the game if say, seniors only, could do promotions and product sponsorship? Imagine if each conference started to allocate 5 percent of conference football revenue to their players, paid out either as stipends during college or over a period following graduation. I think the BIG would once again start dominating the recruiting battles.

Adam Rittenberg: Jimmy, some interesting ideas here. I like that your proposals would affect players across the board, not necessarily just stars. There's no doubt that more of the record revenue being generated can go toward the athletes. Whether it's a stipend for travel/standard expenses, a trust to ensure further education for those who leave school early, or a fund to cover long-term medical injuries sustained while playing, there are ways to improve the college player experience. Some of these already have been proposed by the Big Ten and other conferences, but nothing substantial has come to fruition. The NCAA has let these issues drag for years and now could pay a substantial price, and not just in dollars.


Matt from Michigan writes: MSU has more hype than it deserves. Yes, they won the Rose Bowl, and that is great for a conference that needed a team to do it, but you are forgetting how little one random year means in actually being a consistent program. MSU was 7-6 the previous year. Are you forgetting they had four HOME losses that year? Pat Narduzzi is a fantastic assistant with a great scheme. But that scheme was helped by having talent AND experience at some key positions last year. Something that MSU does not have much of coming back. Looking at just last season, MSU deserves all the recognition it has gotten, but as for the future, please slow down the hype train for the inconsistent Spartan program.

Adam Rittenberg: A couple things, Matt. Go find me a projection that has Michigan State in the College Football Playoff. There aren't many, if any, out there. You cite the 7-6 season MSU had in 2012. That's fair, and the Spartans must show they can build on a season like last one with another strong performance. But to label Michigan State inconsistent is inaccurate. MSU has recorded 11 or more wins in three of the past four seasons. It has produced a top-five defense in each of the last three seasons, despite some personnel moving in and out. Will the 2014 Spartan Dawgs be as dominant as their predecessor? Probably not, but the offense certainly could be better than the 2013 version. I'm going to take a wild guess and say you're a Michigan fan. If we were talking about Michigan, because of its superior overall history, it would be mentioned as a playoff candidate. Michigan State isn't getting the same treatment.


Mark from Champaign, Ill., writes: Is Julie Hermann too outspoken? She doesn't seem to have any boundaries and will talk about anything to any audience. Looks to be a thorn in Jim Delany's side right away.

Adam Rittenberg: I don't know if she has boundaries, Mark, but she's showing her inexperience in the role. Major-conference athletic directors must deal with scrutiny, especially those operating in major markets. She certainly has had more than her share for a first-year AD, but the spotlight is always on, and people are looking for poise, not noise about the media. As an AD, you have to focus on the bigger picture and stay above this stuff. It will be important for Hermann to do so going forward with the Big Ten transition.


Scott from Pleasanton, Calif., writes: After reading some articles about James Franklin's long hours and boundless energy, I wanted to get your take on the following -- does it matter that much? I mean, the coaches aren't on the field making plays, so it seems to me there may be diminishing returns with respect to the total number of hours spent in the office. Would he be just as effective if he worked a little less and got some more sleep?

Adam Rittenberg: He could be, Scott, but coaches always talk about being who they are, and Franklin knows no other way to do the job. The long-hours thing gets overplayed, but I think his energetic approach -- and that of his staff -- is effective in making connections with a group of players who have been through a lot with the coaching changes and sanctions. They want to see the coaches invested in them and in the program. They're getting that with Franklin.


Joel from Minneapolis writes: The Big 12 Blog recently gave its take on whether spring games were still necessary or have become irrelevant. I'd be interested to know your (and Bennett's) takes are on these events. Obviously they're a nice bridge that fills such a long offseason, but some schools can barely attract enough fans to fill even a fraction of their stadiums, and as many coaches in the B12 blog pointed out, have become so guarded as to showcasing how far their team has come along. Perhaps its time for the marketing departments at each school to rebrand these events into a more quasi-athletic affair, showcasing other aspects the athletic department. Thoughts?

Adam Rittenberg: Joel, schools take different approaches and some try to pair the spring football games with another athletic event (Ohio State typically schedules a lacrosse game beforehand). The bigger issues I see are existing injuries or the fear of more injuries. Some teams are so beaten up along the lines that it's impossible to field two true teams. Can't blame them for that. Other coaches are concerned about starters being hurt. I can tell you Wisconsin will have a true spring game, despite its injuries, as only a handful of players (RB Melvin Gordon among them) will be held out as a precaution. Spring games are fun events for the die-hards, but they often don't matter nearly as much as the 14 preceding practices. I'm fine with having the events continue, but I don't expect much from them.
Saquon Barkley tossed off his backpack, when a stack of more than 50 letters -- several blue envelopes on top, bigger white ones below -- caught his eye on the kitchen table.

"What's this?" he asked his mother.

"The mailman hates you," she said with a laugh. "They're all from Penn State."

[+] EnlargeJames Franklin
MCT via Getty Images James Franklin and Penn State were busy on national signing day and they're working to build on the recruiting successes.
Barkley, a three-star tailback in the 2015 class, committed to the Nittany Lions nearly two months ago -- and the letters arrived at Barkley's home just last week. He still hasn't gotten around to opening them all.

That thick stack of envelopes, with two rubber bands holding them together, stands as just one of the testaments to the extra work that James Franklin and his staff have put in. They've inundated commits with handwritten letters, wooed recruits with heaps of attention -- and, most important, have somehow persuaded 11 prospects in the 2015 class to pledge to the Blue and White. It's one of the biggest surprises in the recruiting world.

"Coach Franklin, he's a great guy. If he wants you and needs you on this team, he's going to get you," said Barkley, who flipped from what he labeled his dream school in Rutgers. "I'm telling you the truth. He just has face time for no reason, just to see how I'm doing or my family's doing. Even now, when I'm already committed."

This early recruiting success is unprecedented for the Nittany Lions. Since 2006, when ESPN began tracking recruiting, Penn State never boasted more than five commits before April 10 -- and never, even during a full recruiting cycle, garnered more than six ESPN 300 commits. They're already up to six such players, and with 10 months remaining.

It's not as if Franklin is focusing upon longtime Penn State fans, whose parents drive around with "409" bumper stickers. He's changing the minds of out-of-state high schoolers with confidence -- "I'm not letting you go anywhere else" -- and with an energy usually reserved for motivational speakers who have a predilection toward espresso. Two of Penn State's most recent commits would've offered blank looks or a confused stare if you told them two months ago they'd be changing their Twitter backgrounds to a Nittany Lions logo.

"I would've just said, 'No,' " offensive guard Steven Gonzalez said with a laugh. "I would've said that I most likely would've been a Buckeye."

Added linebacker Josh Barajas, a heavy Notre Dame lean: "I would've told you that you were crazy."

Barajas gave Penn State a chance when he started receiving more handwritten letters from the university than anywhere else. He then arrived to a practice that featured Franklin performing the worm and playfully spraying water in the kicker's face before a field goal. And when Barajas sat down to a lunch of cheesesteak and fries, a time normally reserved for just recruits, Franklin pulled alongside a chair and ate with his family.

Barajas didn't expect that. It was a small gesture -- but it was one no other coach had done. Bill O'Brien, whose office prominently displayed a photo of him alongside Tom Brady, often called recruits into his office to chat. He won top prospects over with his track record but induced sweaty palms and stammers. Here, Franklin's personality is putting recruits at ease -- and then winning them over.

"Sometimes you're kind of uneasy sitting around a guy that important," Barajas said, "but I was just talking to him like he was my friend. We talked about a lot of stuff, too, not just football."

Franklin landed on the Happy Valley tarmac on a wet January morning and, following his introductory news conference, joked with reporters that he needed to leave so he could get to work. He landed a 2014 commit later that night. Two weeks ago, he offered reporters a six-minute chat before leaving abruptly and saying, "As much as I love you, I love [recruits] more." He reeled in two more 2015 commits that weekend.

He's now sleeping on a mattress in his office -- seriously. And he treated signing day like Christmas, complete with several pipers piping. Several commits weren't even quite sure how to explain Franklin's success, but Franklin has an idea.

"For us, it's not work," he told ESPN.com. "It's calling around to all your buddies, it's bringing recruits up and having fun with them, showing them how much fun we have at practice. When we write letters and direct-message and do those things, it's not dry, standard material. It's us showing these kids and these parents and these high school coaches who we are as men and who we are as coaches, and having fun with it."

Franklin made a splash on Day 1 when he repeated -- twice -- that his staff planned to dominate the state and region at recruiting. So far, he has. And, so far, even some of his own commits can't quite believe it.

"I'm definitely surprised," Barajas said. "I didn't think they were going to blow up like this.

"But, then again, I don't see them stopping anytime either."

Big Ten's lunch links

April, 7, 2014
Apr 7
12:00
PM ET
Big Ten is desperate for a title. Which one of you is willing to make the sacrifice?

Links time ...
video
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Last Thursday morning, a barefoot James Franklin exited his office and walked -- Franklin's walk is most people's jog -- through the Penn State football lobby.

Asked about his footwear situation, Franklin explained he had a speaking engagement and needed to change. Moments later, he returned to the lobby and opened a side door filled with shirts and suits.

"That's what happens," Franklin said after selecting his outfit, "when you live in the office."

A lot of football coaches say they live in their offices. It fits the round-the-clock, pedal-down, never-stop-working-'cause-the-other-guy-won't culture of their chosen profession. But at some point, they actually go home, if only for a few hours.

Franklin is actually living in his office at Penn State. He hasn't left for weeks. He recently drove around town simply to get away from the building.

His nights end on couches or on a faulty air mattress. Makes it tougher to do those back handsprings out of bed that Franklin famously begins his days with.

[+] EnlargeJames Franklin
MCT via Getty ImagesEven while sleeping in the office, James Franklin has not lacked for energy in his first few months on the job at Penn State.
"Every night when you leave, you see him pushing couches together," Penn State defensive line coach Sean Spencer said. "You're like, 'You're not staying here again, are you?' And he just shuts his door.

"If he wasn't in here, he'd be in at 5 in the morning and probably leave at 10 or 11 at night anyway. So I guess for the six hours he's going to take a nap, he'll just stay."

There's a somewhat reasonable explanation for Franklin's living situation: His family remains in Nashville, Tenn., and they've yet to secure a new home here. On the other hand, Franklin could easily spring for a hotel room. After signing a contract with Penn State that will pay him $4.25 million annually, he could buy out the entire hotel.

This is more his style. Franklin's corner office is more luxurious than the spare room he lived in while working at Kutztown University, where he earned a $1,200 salary and made ends meet by filling soda machines and tending bar on Sundays. But his approach to coaching -- total immersion, relentless energy -- is the same.

At Franklin's introduction Jan. 11, he delighted Penn State fans with talk of dominating the state in recruiting and unifying the community. He didn't win the news conference. He crushed it.

But his performance left some people wondering two things:

1. Is this guy for real?

2. Is he always like this?

According to Franklin's new players, the answer to both is a resounding yes. Franklin doesn't downshift and neither does his staff. They're propelling Penn State through another potentially treacherous transition -- Franklin is the Lions' fourth coach since November 2011 -- and they aren't slowing down.

"I've never lacked for energy, I've never lacked for enthusiasm," Franklin said. "I'm a realist and see the challenges and issues, but we're going to find ways to overcome 'em."

Penn State faces many challenges in Franklin's first season. The program is only halfway through the four-year period of severe NCAA sanctions.

The scholarship penalties were reduced last year, but the Lions are thin in several spots: offensive line, wide receiver and linebacker. The Lions return an excellent centerpiece in quarterback Christian Hackenberg and other potential All-Big Ten players, but they have to keep them all healthy. Franklin said of the offense: "We're probably going to spend our first two years here solving problems, hiding deficiencies, rather than attacking the defense."

One thing that will never be deficient: Franklin's drive. Penn State players he recruited at past stops see the same full-throttle approach from the coach.

"He's that person all the time," safety Adrian Amos said. "That's very important. It builds a little bit of trust. You know what you're getting."

Added offensive tackle Donovan Smith: "Being a big recruit, coaches would tell you things just because. Coach Franklin always kept it real. Genuine since day one."

Franklin and his assistants, eight of whom he brought to PSU from Vanderbilt, needed to create trust with a team that has endured more recent adversity than any in the country. Although Hackenberg said he's never been on a team so close, players needed to open themselves up to new coaches and schemes.

"Any time there's transition, the players are anxious," defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said. "Sometimes the relationships get tested because you're challenging and pushing them. But [Franklin] always says we can demand a lot as long as we show them how much we care."

During the recruiting rush after Franklin's hiring, Shoop sent late-night text messages to his players, introducing himself and commenting on their play. If he rides a player during practice, he'll send an encouraging text afterward (We're critiquing the performance, not the performer).

Spencer and special teams coordinator Charles Huff use symbolism such as wild dogs and nektonic sea predators to inspire their players. As the team practiced the two-minute drill Wednesday, Franklin called a timeout, clapped his hands in front of kicker Sam Ficken's face and screamed, "I'm icing your ass!" Not only did Ficken make the ensuing field goal, but he drilled a 55-yarder to prevent a team run. Players mobbed Ficken and Franklin.

"I always talk [to players] about matching my intensity," Spencer said. "And as coaches, we have to match the intensity of the head coach, which is hard to do. Ever walk behind that guy? I've never seen anything like it. It's a full-on sprint."

Shoop calls the staff's spirit "our secret sauce," but enthusiasm and hard work don't guarantee wins in the fall.

The Lions have only two healthy offensive linemen (Smith and Angelo Mangiro) who lettered last year. Their leading returning wide receiver, Geno Lewis, had 18 catches in 2013. They lose their only All-Big Ten defender, tackle DaQuan Jones, from a unit that, by Penn State's standards, really struggled. They enter a division featuring Michigan State, Ohio State and Michigan.

PSU needs versatile players, walk-on contributions and good fortune on the injury front.

But after the most turbulent period in team history, the Lions also need consistency. Franklin and his staff intend to provide it.

"The coaches the players see the first week are the same guys they're going to see when they show up here for the 20-year reunion," Franklin said. "It's going to be the same energy and the same personality."

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Penn State 2015 Class Debuts At No. 3
Craig Haubert discusses recent additions to the Nittany Lions' 2015 class and first-year coach James Franklin's success on the recruiting trail.Tags: Adam McLean, Ryan Bates, Penn State Nittany Lions, James Franklin
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