James Franklin's Penn State football team is off to a 2-2 start this fall. And the two losses were particularly difficult for Nittany Lion fans to stomach.
The first was a 42-39 defeat at Pitt Sept. 10, in the first game between the two former Eastern rivals in 16 years. The second was a 49-10 beat-down at No. 4 Michigan last weekend.
In his third season after taking over the NCAA sanction-strapped program when Bill O’Brien bolted for the NFL’s Houston Texans, Franklin is asking Nittany Lion fans accustomed to greater success to show a little patience.
“I want everyone to take a deep breath,” he said at his weekly press conference Tuesday, as Penn State prepared to face 3-0 Minnesota at Beaver Stadium Saturday.
Franklin is in a bit of tricky situation when it comes to fan expectations. The sanctions stemming for the Sandusky scandal were invalidated last year, and PSU is now back near the NCAA scholarship maximum of 85 men (by our count, the Lions are at 82).
But at the start of preseason camp, a full two-thirds of those scholarships were dedicated to players with freshman or sophomore eligibility.
PSU currently has 12 scholarship seniors, and one (LB Nyeem Wartman-White) has been lost for the season due to injury, another (LB Brandon Bell) has missed the last two games with an injury (and is not expected back any time soon), and three are former walk-ons who are special teams’ role players.
So Franklin has seven healthy initial scholarship seniors. By comparison, PSU’s 1986 national championship team had 13 seniors taken in the NFL Draft. The 1995 team — a year after State last went undefeated — had 10 seniors drafted.
At this moment, Bell appears to be the only PSU senior with any shot of being drafted next spring. Junior WRs Chris Godwin and DaeSean Hamilton are the only potential early entries, and neither projects in the early rounds. Players from Franklin's first full recruiting class — which signed in 2015 and includes star running back Saquon Barkley — won't be draft eligible until the spring of 2018.
Franklin said, “I get it, I embrace it,” when it comes to fan expectations. And he did nothing to temper them with bold proclamations about the sort of success he expected back when he was hired in January of 2014.
But back-to-back 7-6 seasons gave him a much better feel for how steep of a climb the program was (and is) facing as it emerged from the sanctions.
“There's a process from the time we arrived to where we're going,” he said. “… Are there times where we all want the progress to happen a lot faster? No doubt about it. But I think that's also what makes Penn State special, is there's very high expectations here. There's a tremendous amount of pride.”
Later, he added, “I think what happens a lot of times is people compare and contrast. Well, it's hard to compare and contrast because of the situation we were in. Who are you going to compare that to? So I get it, but I think it's coming from a good place. It's coming from a place of pride and love of Penn State and wanting to get back to those memories and those experiences that they look back so fondly on.”
So he’s asking fans to take that deep breath.
“I believe in my 22 years of experience that we're heading in the right direction and good things are going to happen if people let the process play out,” Franklin said.