Franklin Talks OC Change, Offseason Departures, Uncertainty in Season Wrap-Up Presser
The 2020-21 college football season is officially over. Needless to say, it was a season unlike any other with the COVID-19 pandemic creating the over-arching storyline. Every team needed to adapt and roll with the changes, including the Penn State Nittany Lions.
While it wasn’t a particularly successful season in Happy Valley, as the Nittany Lions finished 4-5 for their worst record in over a decade, it was a season of learning, as head coach James Franklin mentioned in his season wrap-up press conference.
“What 2020 has taught me is that you have to be prepared for whatever comes,” Franklin said. “You have to be flexible.”
The Nittany Lions were one of just two teams in the Big Ten to play every game that was scheduled, the other being Rutgers. But that’s not to say that Penn State went without its challenges.
Despite being a top-five Big Ten team in most offensive categories, the Nittany Lions lacked the same explosiveness and ball security of more successful Penn State teams of the past. These difficulties led in part to the firing of offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca after just one season in the blue and white. Franklin referred to difference in philosophy as the reason for Ciarrocca’s release.
“At the end of the day, it was a very tough decision, but philosophically, we felt it was the right thing for us to do to get where we want to go,” Franklin said.
In turn, Penn State hired former Texas offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich as its new OC. Franklin said that he feels that Yurcich’s philosophies are more in line with the offense that Penn State wants to be.
“Me and Mike (sic) have been talking for a long time, and we’re on the same page as to what we want to do and how we want to do it,” Franklin said. “The things that excite me the most are his stats: his yards per play, his scoring… There haven’t been too many offensive coordinators that have been able to average 40 points per game in his five seasons.”
Franklin explained that his vision is for Penn State to return to an offense of spread sets and quick tempo, rather than the blended offense that was implemented with the hiring of Ciarrocca. Franklin wants more emphasis on explosive plays, turnovers and scoring: the three most important things for an offense to succeed at in order to have a better chance of winning, according to Franklin.
“The way college football is trending… there’s going to be games where you have to score 40 points [to win],” Franklin said. “Those [three] things are a premium now, probably more than ever.”
Ciarrocca’s firing and Yurcich’s hiring marks Penn State’s fourth different offensive coordinator change since current Oregon OC Joe Moorhead arrived in 2016. Franklin noted that the turnover at this position is concerning but ultimately a necessary move for adapting to the ever-changing college football landscape.
“In a perfect world, you’d love to have continuity, but I could also show multiple examples of where that’s not happening,” Franklin said. “That’s just the nature of the beast now. We want as much continuity as we can possibly have, but I don’t know if that’s realistic in today’s college football.”
There’s little question that football is evolving, both on the professional and collegiate level. One goal for Franklin is for his program to better roll with the changes, however difficult it may be.
“College football has changed dramatically over the past five years,” Franklin said. “The reality is that you have to embrace it and move forward. You have to understand what the current model is and evolve. It’s not going to go back to the way it was.”
While many of the changes in college football have put a focus on offense first, defense is also an area to address, especially for the Nittany Lions.
Poor tackling, lack of turnover creation and failure to get frequent pressure on opposing quarterbacks were key reasons for Penn State’s defensive struggles in 2020, and Franklin took notice.
“In my time as coach, dating back to Vanderbilt, I think we’ve done a pretty good job of [excelling on defense], but I wouldn’t say last year fell into that category,” Franklin said. “We have to limit explosive plays, more so now than ever. We did not tackle as well last year as we have. We have to improve at creating turnovers—it’s a huge momentum swing. [We have to make] people kick field goals when they get in the red zone [instead of] scoring touchdowns.”
The defensive challenges may only continue to grow with key departures in the offseason, especially on the line. Both senior Shaka Toney and redshirt sophomore Jayson Oweh opted to declare for the 2021 NFL draft, leaving gaping holes to fill at defensive end.
“[The defensive end position is] probably where we are as focused on as much as anything,” Franklin said. “We’ve done a good job of handling it so far, but there are still options out there, whether it’s high school or the transfer portal.”
Defensive end is not the only position that Penn State has to address. Franklin mentioned that no position, not even quarterback, is safe from further inspection.
“If there’s something that makes sense and clearly makes us better, we’re going to look at it,” Franklin said. “That’s a responsibility we have to have for our organization. We’re going to make sure we do our homework at every position, and that [that decision] is clearly the right one for our program going forward.”
The one position that Penn State will have fewer questions about than any other is wide receiver, and that’s because of the return of Jahan Dotson.
Fresh off a season that led the Big Ten in both receiving yards and receiving touchdowns, Dotson recently announced he would return to Happy Valley for 2021 instead of declaring for the NFL draft, bringing talent and experience to a still-developing receiving corps.
While Franklin emphasized the importance of the full ensemble, he also recognized the impact of Dotson’s decision to return.
“At the end of the day, I’m going to support whatever decisions these guys make, but having Jahan back is important for us, and it gives us a really good building block,” Franklin said. “We have a bunch of other guys—Parker [Washington] did some great things, there’s KeAndre [Lambert-Smith], and Cam Sullivan-Brown… We need to get the other guys as involved as we possibly can. But with Jahan and most of the production coming back, there’s less of a question mark at that position.”
Even with Dotson’s return, there are still of plenty of questions left to be answered, especially with the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic still in place. Those questions were factored into Penn State’s decision not to participate in a bowl game after the conclusion of the 2020 season.
Franklin explained that this was a full team decision, and that the negatives ended up outweighing the positives with all the uncertainty looming.
“The challenge is the same as you saw with other teams,” Franklin said. “You decide to go to a bowl game—do you send your guys home for Christmas? Or do you keep your team up over the holidays? What if you make those sacrifices and the game gets canceled? We were already paper-thin at something positions, and if you have a couple players that decide to opt out or go to the NFL, that creates challenges as well.”
“If we decided to play, we would have found a way to make it work,” Franklin continued. “And there were some real positives: Getting another win, keeping our bowl streak alive… There were arguments both ways. But we had very little wiggle room left.”
It seems that more positives than negatives came out of Penn State’s decision to opt out of a bowl game, including the always-important family aspect.
In December, Franklin, a noted family man, was able to see his wife and children (who are living in Florida at the moment) in person for the first time since the season began. Though that was not without its challenges either.
“I had to take two tests the day after our season ended, then I had to quarantine for five days,” Franklin said. “Then I took two more tests and felt like, based on our daughter’s doctor, that I was safe. By doing that, I was able to get to see them on Christmas Eve. They didn’t know I was coming, so it was a cool surprise.”
Franklin also joked that his family was excited to see him for the first couple days but is now ready for him to “get back to work.”
On a more serious note, Franklin highlighted the reality that it could be a long time until he sees his family in Pennsylvania again.
“Not a whole lot has changed, specifically in Central Pennsylvania, so our next hurdle is: when are they going to be able to come here?” Franklin said. “I don’t see that happening anytime soon.”
For now, it’s back to football focus for Franklin and the rest of the Nittany Lions. Undoubtedly, uncertainty and overcoming challenge will continue to be trends, as they were for the entirety of the 2020 season and as they are today. But with such a season under their belts, Franklin feels he and his team are more prepared than ever to take on the adversity.
“After going through a season [like this], it’s easier to say that we can pull off spring ball and do it the right way,” Franklin said. “But it’s hard to tell. We’re moving ahead, prepared and planning on doing it all until someone tells us different. We’ll have to be prepared for whatever comes.”
DJ Bauer is a senior majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email email@example.com.