Some really good insights here from Penn State coach James Franklin about his team, USC's Trojans, his program's approach to football and this season's success and the way they're starting their prep for USC in his Rose Bowl presser Friday. Really worth reading for the number of interesting nuggets here.
JF: Appreciate everybody coming out. Obviously the team is really excited about the opportunity and the Rose Bowl. We're going to leave on the 26th. We've got a lot of work to do between now and the game to get prepared. Guys are finishing up with exams right now. Grades are starting to come in, so that's always an exciting/nervous time, waiting for grades to come in. And then we have practice this afternoon, and then we'll have a what we call a non-travel practice tomorrow, so we're going to give all the travel squad guys off tomorrow and get a young guy practice on Saturday with the graduate assistants, myself, give all the rest of the coaches the day off so they can be with their families a little bit and get some work done. So we'll split some time right now.
I think you guys know the last couple years that have followed us, we kind of take two different approaches. We have one approach where our first couple practices are program development practices. They're not really specific towards USC. We will get some USC work in with film and things like that, but it's going to be more program development, getting the young guys some work, good-on-good type of stuff. And then we'll start to shift to USC where we'll do a basically bonus Tuesday practice, a bonus Wednesday practice, and then go out there and do our full, full week of preparation. So a normal Sunday, a normal Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and then get ready for the game.
It's been a lot of planning, a lot of organization that's gone in. We're fortunate, as you guys know, I take a lot of pride in being organized, and our staff does a great job. So (Chief of Staff) Jemal Griffin, (Director of Football Operations) Mike Hazel and (Director of Football Administration) Kevin Threlkel, those guys had every bowl game mapped out before the season started, and then once we get back, we go out there, we visited the bowl site and got all the details and the specifics and then cleaned it up from there.
We've got a good plan. We're ready to go. I'm excited for the grades to come in, have an idea about that, and then for practice today. So hopefully we won't be too rusty out there today, have a great practice, and go from there.
Q. The day after the Big Ten Championship game and the couple days after, some fans expressed disappointment that you didn't make it to the College Football Playoff. I was just wondering what have you sensed from your players since you accepted the Rose Bowl invitation in terms of excitement level?
JF: Yeah, I think our guys are really excited. I think it's fair and obvious to say that our guys and myself and everybody would love to have been part of the four. But again, we didn't make the playoffs, and we're going to be going to the Rose Bowl. There's excitement about that. We've had a wonderful season. There's been a lot of really good things happening. There's been tremendous growth from the beginning of the season to the end, and we're playing a good football team. I mean, you watch these guys and you study these guys, and you look at their talent, you can make an argument that if you just take where teams are at, at the end of the season, and don't talk about overall record but just say who are the best teams in college football right now, you could make an argument that USC would be in that conversation.
I think our guys are excited. You know, now it's kind of getting all the things organized so their families and their friends can make plans and schedules so they know when they're going to be able to go home for Christmas, when they need to be back here, how we're traveling, how we're getting there, getting all these things organized because if you don't do it the right way, it can become a distraction. You've got a lot of things going on this time of year, and like I said, you've got final exams, you've got bowl schedules, what to expect with that. You've got a lot of people patting them on the back. We've got to handle that the right way.
You have guys making decisions about the NFL. There's a lot of things going on, and you've got to manage all those things well so that you can keep your focus where it needs to be, which is on USC.
Let me ask you to do something before the next question because I know you guys always want this all year long and I never give it to you, but now I can so I will, which will make you guys really happy.
Season-ending injuries - some of these you guys were aware of, some you're not: Brendan Mahon, Paris Palmer, Andrew Nelson, Chance Sorrell, Jan Johnson, Nyeem Wartman-White, Jason Vranic, Jake Cooper, Von Walker, Brandon Polk, and Nick Bowers. So we don't talk about a lot of those things during the season, as you guys know, because I want people to have to prepare for the possibility of those guys coming back at some point not knowing when that's going to happen, but those guys all had season-ending injuries.
I hear a lot of other programs and a lot of other media people talk about injuries and things like that and what they had to overcome. We had a lot to overcome this year. I will kind of put that out so you guys are aware and then we can just move on and never talk about it again.
Q. Throughout the season you've been asked about Penn State being so strong in the second half, but speaking specifically about the fourth quarter, you guys are No. 1 in point margin there. You've outscored the competition by 111. Alabama is No. 2 at 85. That's a big gap between you and everyone else. What is it this year that's allowed you guys to be so effective in the fourth quarter, and how has that allowed you to get to the Rose Bowl?
JF: Yeah, I think a couple things. I think we do a great job during the week of keeping our guys fresh. I think we did a good job all year long of keeping our guys fresh, and it was much easier to manage this year being back to 85 scholarships, which is what I'm used to doing as a head coach. I never had to manage 65 scholarships or 75 scholarships. I think we got back to something that we're more comfortable doing.
I think our coaches do a great job at halftime making adjustments, getting our guys calmed down. I think I've mentioned this to you guys before. I think although it's late in the season, you don't really talk about being a young team anymore. I do think there were times where our guys would get a little frazzled in the first quarter and we would need to get them settled down, especially like on the offensive line where we were playing a bunch of young guys late in the season, and getting those guys into halftime and getting them calmed down and no different than Little League and Pop Warner getting them some orange slices and allowing them to go to the bathroom and being able to sit down and talk to them and not having to sprint right back on the field, we were able to get those things covered.
You know, we do things a little bit different, and I think it's a nice adjustment that we made this off-season where the first thing that we do, the offense breaks and the defense breaks like most people in the country, but Charles Huff now goes out and talks to the special teams as a full team, anybody that's involved in special teams, so he does that while the offense and defense are meeting. Then he comes back in with the offense, and Joe probably is a little bit different than most of the coaches I've ever been around. He actually spends a lot more time with the coaches and then gets with the players really at the last minute to kind of get his thoughts organized with the coaching staff, what things are going well, what things we need to get cleaned up, and then gets out with the players kind of at the last minute to be honest with you.
But I think we've done a good job. So I think it's a combination of the coaches doing a great job of getting things kind of adjusted and figuring out who people are going to be, but I think more than anything, it's just a young team that doesn't have a whole lot of reps and experiences and getting those guys settled down, where an older player, they may see something that you weren't expecting in the game but they had seen it earlier in the year or they had seen it last year and they can fall back on that experience to help them. I think that's probably the biggest difference, and then I think, like I said, being fresh. I think the fact that we rotate so many guys on the defensive line. You look at us over the last three years, the majority of our sacks come in the second half of the game, and I think that's because we rotate guys and we keep guys fresh that as the game goes on, we just keep wearing you down with the number of guys that we're playing and able to have some success there.
I think the other thing is I think the fact that we're playing really good competition [and our defense] is holding people. Our offense is scoring more points, and because of the combination of those two things, it allows everybody on the sideline to feel like we're never out of a game because we have the ability to score, because we have the ability to hold people, where I think maybe in years past in other situations I've been in, it maybe puts too much stress on one side of the ball or the other, and then I think obviously our special teams, again, I've brought it up multiple times to you guys, our special teams I don't think have gotten enough credit this year for the success that we've had and for the change.
Q. Just curious, you brought it up about guys thinking about the NFL. Are you able to share if any of your players have put in for the Draft Advisory Board, and you've talked about bringing a company or two in to talk to the kids and their families. Can you just give us a little more detail about how long that process takes and how all that shakes out?
JF: Yeah, I won't get into the specifics right now. Maybe in the spring we can get into the specifics or at another point, but yeah, we have a company that works with us year-round that comes in and talks to our players from the time they're freshmen until the time they're a senior about the draft process, about how to select an agent, about how to maximize as much value as possible and got all kinds of data to support what they're doing. They work with a number of programs across the country.
And then on top of that, I'll have individual meetings with guys and their parents and do that as much as we possibly can and educate them on it. So that's kind of an ongoing process. I've done it for the six years that I've been a head coach, and it's been helpful, but it is a little bit of a distraction right now for the players, for the coaches, for everybody, trying to kind of manage all those things. But it's an important decision. I'm a big believer, no different than any other decision you make in life, you want to have as much information as you possibly can to make an educated decision and then go from there.
The new rule now in the NFL is you can have five players put in for draft grades, which I think is good. They've also changed that in terms of the way they do it. The way they do it now is you're either a first-round guy, a second-round guy or go back to school. It used to be fourth through seventh was the next category, so on and so forth. Now it's basically you're going to be a first-round draft choice, you're going to be a second-round draft choice and then you're going to be graded as go back to school.
The problem is that even that's a little bit gray. I think one of the things that I saw the other day, I think there's 96 players right now in the country with first-round grades. The issue is I think there's only 32 spots, so you make a decision to come out of school because you're being recommended to be a first-round draft choice, and you don't get drafted until the third round. Not a wise choice, especially if you've got a chance to come back one more year and bump from the third round to the first round. That's the decision you should make every single time.
It's difficult. It's difficult to make a great decision. There's a lot of information out there, and it can be challenging.
Q. This is the time of the year where you see a lot of coaches' movement. [Offensive coordinator] Joe Moorhead’s name came up a couple times. Do you expect to keep your staff together? And also if you can indulge a quick assessment on a couple local players from [the Altoona] area, Kevin Givens and Zach Simpson?
JF: Yeah, Givens and Zach Simpson first. I'm really, really proud of both of those guys. I think both of them have really bright futures. Kevin is growing in so many ways. I'm really proud of him. It's been a battle for him and for us, but he's really, really doing a good job. I'm really proud of him. Football-wise he had a lot of success this year as really a first-time starter. I think his best football is ahead of him. Been a big transformation for him coming to Penn State, the academic responsibilities, the social responsibilities, all those things, and we're just so proud of him.
Simpson is a guy that come here and is really earning everything that he's got. He's earned everybody's respect in our program for how he conducts himself on the scout team, how he's been in competitive periods. He's kind of a no-nonsense guy. His family has been awesome, very supportive. So they're two guys that your community should be very proud of because they're doing a great job and we're proud of them.
You know, you talk about our assistant coaches. I think that's a compliment. I think whenever you have assistant coaches being approached and people trying to hire your staff, that means that you're doing something right, and they want to kind of get a piece of it. I think we've had three coaches approached, three separate coaches approached for multiple head coaching jobs. I'm hoping that we're going to be able to keep the staff together as long as we possibly can, but they're talented guys and guys who are going to leave at some point for head coaching opportunities. We want that for them, but we want to try to keep the staff together as long as we possibly can.
So for me right now, what I'm concerned about is doing everything in my power and our power here at Penn State to put all the things into place to continue to build on what we're doing right now. That's the coaches, keeping our coaches together for as long as we possibly can, contracts and supporting them the best we possibly can, and then all the other things that we need to do. We've done a lot of studies on what programs across the country are doing to compete at this level, and then we're trying to put as many of those things in position as possible so we can capitalize on this momentum we have right now.
Q. You've talked in the past about game records you identify for each team. Could you share a couple of those, what you've seen on tape from USC and who you might think you're keying on for the Rose Bowl?
JF: Yeah. As you guys know, this is a really, really talented team. I think the change that they made, the change that they made at the quarterback position really kind of changed their whole season, playing with a lot of confidence right now. They are big. They are athletic, and they are very, very skilled.
You know, I think if you look defensively, they've got a nose tackle that is a graduate transfer from Utah, and he is a grown man. He's a concern for us right now, No. 96, Stevie Tu'ikolovatu. I hope I said that right. I doubt I did, and Stevie, I apologize if I did not pronounce that correct. Six-1, 320-pound nose guard who is very, very active, very, very disruptive, reminds us a lot of [former Nittany Lion defensive tackle Austin Johnson]. Maybe not as tall as AJ but very, very disruptive.
Will linebacker No. 35, Cameron Smith, and then obviously Adoree' Jackson their corner won the Jim Thorpe Award and was the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, was a highly recruited kid out of high school. Those guys are guys that obviously we're concerned about and need to be aware of.
And then obviously on offense, the thing that's changed them the most is the change at the quarterback position with Sam Darnold, 6-4, 225-pound kid who's completing 70 percent of his passes, 26 touchdowns, eight interceptions. I think he's only been sacked 11 times all year long. They do a great job protecting him.
Their one tackle is 6-9 and is 6'9". You look at him on tape and sometimes you question the heights and the measurements. He's 6-9 and he is athletic and light on his feet. Impressive.
And then Ronald Jones, the running back, has had a really, really good year, rushed for over 1,000 yards, a 6-1, 195 pounds, Ronald Jones, and then obviously JuJu Smith-Schuster, 6-2-, 220-pound wide receiver who's a problem and is a game changer for them.
There are things that we need to be concerned about. Darreus Rogers has also had a good year for them as a wide receiver, and then they have an offensive guard, No. 51, Damien Mama. He's another guy that we've been impressed with.
On special teams, John Baxter, their special teams coordinator, has been very respected for a very, very long time. Adoree' Jackson jumps out there. You look at the Notre Dame game, that's the difference. I think they returned a punt and a kick for a touchdown in that game. They have guys that can hurt you in all three phases.
They are very talented, but like I mentioned before, I think the biggest difference for them was the change at the quarterback position. It's kind of changed their whole season. They've been playing with a lot of confidence since then.
Q. I wonder if you can reflect on what the success that you've had this year has meant, what you've seen, to the fans, the community, the students, particularly in light of what happened in the past?
JF: Yeah. You know, I get so many emails from lettermen, from people in our local community, people that I would consider our national community, our Penn State alums and fans that are all over the country. I get a lot of emails. Fortunately Diane, my administrative assistant, only sends me the nice ones, which is good. But yeah, they've been really good. I get a lot of direct messages and stuff on Twitter that people send me, as well. The few times I get out of my office, people are happy right now. A lot of former players, Rocky Washington just left my office, former player. There's a lot of people that -- having Matt Millen who's been back for games and kind of getting his perspective on things. So it's been good. I think it's been really important for our local community. I think it's been really important for our lettermen. People are excited.
I think people have heard me say and our players say, one of the things we're probably most proud of is for as long as I can remember, people have been talking about what Penn State was, and I think in the '80s when Penn State was so dominant, you think how long it's been since we won an outright Big Ten Championship. There's been some time there. And I think for the first time in a long time, people are talking about what Penn State is, which is good.
But we still have got a lot of work to do. We've had a nice season, but you look at the programs that have been top-5, top-10 programs, we've still got a lot of work to do. We still have a long journey to get where we want to go. There's still a lot of heavy lifting that needs to be done. There's still a lot of hard work that needs to be done. This is a nice start, and I think this bowl game is going to be important for us, as well. Finishing the season the right way, playing the way we're capable of playing, having fun, enjoying it, and taking another step in the right direction. But we still have a lot of work to do in a lot of different areas.
Q. We talk about your team's great play in the second half. USC in the first half has outscored their opposition 235 to 100. I know you've been dealing urgently with your players to try to get off to better starts. How much more urgency is needed for what you're going to be facing on January 2nd?
JF: It's a great point. You know, it doesn't sound like a great combination, us playing great in the second half and them playing great in the first half. Obviously it's one thing if you're playing a pro-style offense and they're going to try to grind you up like Wisconsin and they get a lead on you. That's a little bit different than playing a team like USC who is as explosive as anything and can score a bunch of points in a short period of time. You can't afford to get down by a bunch.
Our offense allows us to score points, but their offense is the type offense that can score points at any moment. We're going to have to play great for four quarters. Each possession is like gold, each series is like gold, each rep is like gold, and we've got to approach it that way in practice and in the games.
It'll be a point of emphasis, that and third down will be a point of emphasis during these developmental practices as well as the bowl practices. That's another area that we need to be better in.
And I also think, you know, as you can imagine, we've had some guys that have been playing with some bumps and bruises all year long, so this time off has been important for that, as well, going into this game as healthy and as fresh as we possibly can.
Q. You went up against a pretty good secondary in the Big Ten title game and did fairly well. How does that experience help you going forward in this game, or is USC a totally different animal back there?
JF: I think when you're facing a guy who's the Thorpe Award winner and things like that, it's a little bit different animal. They have tremendous length and athleticism and speed, and so did Wisconsin. But you know, I think what you saw in the second half of Wisconsin was really what we felt like we could have done going into that game is what we were able to do is we were able to protect better. The first half we weren't able to protect really well. They got to [quarterback] Trace [McSorley] way too many times, but I think one of the things that everybody has earned so much respect for Trace is not just his play-making ability but probably most importantly his toughness. So we were able to protect a little bit longer to give our wide receivers time to get open, and to be honest with you, I'd make the argument that left tackle and defensive back, especially corner, are probably the two hardest positions in football to play physically, the physical traits of that. And I think if you can ever give a receiver enough time to work a route, it's hard to cover those guys, especially a group as talented as ours, it's hard to cover anybody for that long a time.
It always starts up front for us. Again, you guys have heard me say that over and over again, and if we're going to be able to protect and get some movement on their D-line, then I like our chances. We've got big, physical wide receivers that can run and make plays in space. They have big, talented corners, but I just think that's a difficult position to play.
Time is the biggest thing. If we can get enough time to get those guys open and have some concepts in terms of in our passing game that are going to create challenges and stress on their defense, which I think our offensive staff and Joe do a really good job of.
Q. Obviously both of these teams have been some of the hottest in the nation, but you're not going to play the game for a month between these two games. What are some of the challenges that come with maintaining that momentum when both of you have been dependent on the fact that you've only got to wait six days to play your next game?
JF: Well, I haven't studied their injury issues as much as ours at this point, so I think from our perspective, I know it's a positive. We were getting really thin at some positions as the year went on, had overcome some stuff early on, but just allowing these guys some downtime physically to get their bodies back, emotionally to get their juice back and their spirits back. The confidence is there, and right now classes are going to be done, so it's going to be football. There's only certain times of the year where it's football only, and for us we don't get that in camp. A lot of schools get that in camp. Our guys go to class. I think we only have one week where we're not taking class during summer camp.
I think our guys are looking forward to it. I look at it as a positive. Again, it's time off as being able to focus just on football. We've got a really good plan where we're not going to be out at practice too long. We want to keep them fresh, start to kind of introduce USC slowly, and then go full bore ahead.
Like I said, over our six years together, we've had a good amount of success of getting better as the year has gone on. In the entirety of the six years we've been together, we've done a pretty good job of that. That's Tim Bream and his staff, the trainers. We meet with them every morning at 7:00 a.m. and same thing with our strength staff and having a plan to make sure that we are peaking at the right time physically, emotionally, all those things, peaking at the right time for the game.
And I think the other thing obviously where they have a huge advantage is it's a home game for them. We have to travel out there. We have to deal with time changes and all those types of things, and that's a factor, and all those things have to factor into our planning and how we approach it.
Q. You were asked and touched on it earlier about the impact of the Big Ten title on the fans. Have there been any tangible impacts inside the football program on winning the Big Ten title with regard to program building, recruiting, facilities, anything like that, that you've seen in the last couple of weeks has been energized?
JF: Yeah, I think obviously a confidence. People say all the time, “how do you build confidence?” By having success. That's a whole 'nother conversation about scheduling. It’s having success -- in our first three years, my first three years being a head coach, that was an important part of it, is teaching guys how to win. Right now our guys are confident. We have played and played a bunch of really good teams and found ways to be successful. A lot of confidence comes from that. There's a lot of things that factor into it.
I think you walk around our building, there's a buzz and there's an energy. There's no doubt about it. You walk around campus, there's a buzz. You guys know how strongly I believe in being positive. We had to overcome some of the opposite early on the first couple years. I really believe if we would have had more of this positive energy earlier, we would have had a little bit more success.
I think the coaching staff is going to continue to do that, but the fact that these guys are getting patted on the back and those types of things, there's confidence that comes with that, but we have to be careful that they're not overconfident and that we don't lose who we are, which is a blue collar, hard-nosed team that focuses on preparation and controlling the things that we can control.
You know, that's going to be our message over and over again. We're going to stick to our plan. We're going to stick to our process. But I do think winning the Big Ten Championship and having that trophy sitting on Diane's desk when I come walking in, you've got the Big Ten East trophy, for a while there we had a dozen roses that were delivered from the Rose Bowl that was right in the middle, and then we had the Big Ten Championship off to the side, and I remember the first day walking back into the building and seeing that. It was kind of early in the morning, it's dark, I turned on the lights and there it was, and it put a smile on my face, to be honest with you. The roses are now dead. The trophies are still there, but now we've kind of moved on to, again, our preparation and trying to find a way to have success over USC.
Q. How do you go about with your front seven, you talked about creating time for Trace McSorley, flipping that script? How do you go about your front seven attacking them and trying to make them one-dimensional?
JF: Yeah, that's really kind of what we're working on right now. We've worked all week this week on game plan, so we should be way ahead. What you have to be careful of as coaches is you get into this bowl time, and one of the worst enemies is you get out of your normal routine, and you have way too much free time, and you try to get cute on offense and you try to get cute on defense, and you see something on a Monday night game that the Raiders ran or the Cowboys ran or the Eagles or the Steelers ran, and you get away from who you are. You have too much time on your hands.
So we have to be careful of that. We went over that this morning in the staff meeting, and our coaches know that. Sometimes I just say things to make myself feel better, but a lot of times it's just to reinforce what they already know. Let's stick to who we are.
You know, again, it's going to come down to up front. They are really, really good up front. They've only given up 11 sacks all year long. They're very balanced. They do a great job of throwing the ball, they do a great job running the ball because they're so effective up front. We have to find a way to get our defensive line to be more disruptive earlier in games. Tackles for loss early in the games, sacks early in the games. If you look at us, a lot of our tackles for loss and sacks come in the second half. How can we be more disruptive, more violent, more explosive, play faster and more confident early in games to make people one-dimensional or get them off track?
If you look at the Wisconsin game, that's what we didn't do in the first half. They were having way too much success on 1st and 2nd down. That was creating manageable 3rd downs, and that's what their entire offense and system is built on. You look in the second half, right away what we did was we got them into some negative-yardage plays or no-yardage plays which put them behind the sticks and really changed the whole complexion of the game.
Q. When you look at the trophies next to you on each side, you may have pictured that someday but now it's actually happened. You talked about being positive. For some teams before you they had the validation of that happening. For you as a coach, you may have pictured success but now it's happened. Has it changed you at all?
JF: Yeah, I don't think it's changed my staff, I don't think it's changed me. I'm fairly stubborn, but I'm stubborn because we've done a lot of homework and we've done a lot of research, and we've had a lot of evidence that our plan works and that we spend a lot of time in the off-season taking our plan each year and tweaking it and modifying it but never going away from the core of who we are. I think you guys have seen that. My approach each week coming in here, my approach at practice, my approach with the guys, my approach with recruiting, it's something over 22 years that we've developed that we feel strongly in. Obviously the success helps, but it's not like this is the first time we've had success. You know, so we were fortunate to come up with a plan early on that worked, and then obviously you've got to modify those plans based on each unique situation that you're in and each university or school or community you're in. And we've done that.
I think it probably reinforces what you already believe and what you already think, so I wouldn't necessarily say it changes it, but it reinforces that. And then I think the other thing that's really, really important is just like we have to keep the players grounded because if you listen to too much of the criticism or too much of the praise, both of those things are going to have a very negative effect on you personally and as a group and as a team. And it's the same thing with our coaches.
And fortunately for me, I have a group of coaches that we have a lot of trust in each other. We have a lot of belief in each other, and we care about each other, and we are willing to have very honest conversations with each other. A lot of times the head coach is willing to have those conversations with the assistants, but it hasn't created an environment where the assistants are comfortable having that conversation with the head coach.
So I get beat up by my staff no different than they get beat up. We're pretty aggressive with each other. We attack each other. We've got thick skin. And then the best decision I ever made is I married Funmilayo Franklin, and she's not afraid to give me her opinion on a wide range of subjects to keep all of us grounded. I think that's really, really, really important.
So yeah, we're not going to change. Never are. I'm an East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, kid that got his dream, his opportunity to come back home and build this program, and we've still got a long ways to go, but we're taking steps in the right direction.