Once considered so vital to Penn State football's sustainability that former coach Bill O'Brien dressed-up its name, the team's walk-on program is now causing a few headaches for first-year coach James Franklin.
In fairness to Franklin, he has frequently mentioned the continued importance of walk-ons as the Nittany Lions climb their way back from scholarship penalties imposed by the NCAA stemming from the Sandusky scandal. But the coaching change -- from O'Brien to Franklin -- and last year's easing of the scholarship restrictions have combined to cause confusion and frustration.
“It's been a little bit of a challenge this year,” Franklin said.
One issue is with the incoming true freshman class. The scholarship rookies are all already on campus. When camp starts Monday, Franklin can only have 105 men in attendance. Apparently O'Brien's staff promised some incoming “run-ons,” as they were called at the time, spots on the 105 when they were recruited.
But he left for the NFL's Houston Texans at the turn of the year, and took much of the previous staff with him. Nobody from that staff remains at PSU. And they did not leave behind a rundown of which potential walk-ons were promised what.
“We didn't have it documented from the previous staff -- they are their guys,” Franklin said here Tuesday. “The linebackers coach talked to these three guys, the D-line coach talked to these four guys. Or (a) high school coach called and said, 'My guy was promised a walk-on spot.' This is the first time we're hearing it.
“It was a little messy, to be honest with you, because if a kid was told that, you want to live up to the offer,” he added. “But where we had some issues was with numbers, our numbers (for the 105) were getting up. And I'm having a hard time saying this kid in our program, who has been there all spring, we're not gonna bring him to camp and bring in one of these high school kids that I don't know.”
The scholarship limit was initially supposed to be 65 (or 20 below the NCAA maximum for most schools) this year. So the program needed a lot of walk-ons to fill roster spots. But when it was raised to 75 last September -- in the middle of the regular season and recruiting season -- the numbers changed.
“It's one of our biggest challenges this year,” Franklin said.
The other difficult part has been dealing with some of the walk-ons who are already on campus, and not because they've done anything wrong. Due to multiple player departures in the wake of the NCAA sanctions, O'Brien and company actually found themselves with extra scholarships last season. So they awarded at least four of them to the better walk-ons already in the program.
“It is in black and white, it was explained in detail. Compliance was involved with it, the coaches were involved with it, the kids — everybody kind of understood that.”
But with the sanctions being reduced, the potential for further reductions this year and the addition of an outstanding recruiter in Franklin, the new staff closed out its Class of 2014 with a flourish (and has gone gangbusters with its Class of 2015).
Long story short: the scholarships given to some of the walk-ons were needed for other players.
Though he would not identify the players who lost scholarships, Franklin insisted that they knew the grants were given to them on a year-by-year basis. In fact, O'Brien had previously gone on record as saying scholarships for walk-ons were evaluated each year.
“You are clearly told that we have scholarships left over, and we're gonna put you on a scholarship for a year,” Franklin said. “It is in black and white, it was explained in detail. Compliance was involved with it, the coaches were involved with it, the kids -- everybody kind of understood that.
“So you're not pulling anything because they were told they were only going to get it for a year,” he added.
None of which makes the process easy. In fact, Franklin will not publicly reveal which walk-ons are and are not on scholarship because there may be some stigma attached to someone who loses a grant.
“I'm not trying to withhold information,” Franklin said. “But I'm always concerned about chemistry. And I'm also concerned about these kids, how they're being talked about in the media and with the fans and things like that.”
Franklin also noted that none of this applies to players who arrive at Penn State on scholarship. The initial scholarship athletes are told if they stay out of legal trouble and remain academically eligible, their scholarships will be rolled over every year.
He added that none of the scholarship business impacts playing time.
“I'm trying to be respectful of the team and I'm trying to be respectful of those kids,” he said. “Because to me, once a kid joins our program, they're not treated any different. Whether you're a walk-on or scholarship (player), you have an opportunity.”