Skip to main content

Is Franklin Floundering or Flourishing?

James Franklin

James Franklin

PSU Coach Enters Key Transition for Program and Career

In his first-ever press conference in 2014  for the Penn State Nittany Lions, James Franklin famously or infamously, whichever side you believe in, said that Penn State would "Dominate the State." What state that would be, whether it was Pennsylvania recruiting or Big Ten conference competition, the results have been mixed.

It has been a roller coaster ride in Franklin's tenure in Happy Valley, whether you are looking back post-sanctions that rocked his team the first two seasons. The next stanza guided the Nittany Lions to a Big Ten Championship and 3 New Year's Six Bowls in 4 seasons, then to this recent rut of .500 football (11-11 the previous two seasons).

Coaching turnover has been killing the Nittany Lions since Joe Moorhead's departure to Mississippi State after the 2017 season; the Nittany Lions have seen coordinate the offense:

  • Ricky Rahne - 2018 and 2019 regular season
  • Tyler Bowen - 2019 Cotton Bowl
  • Kirk Ciarrocca – 2020
  • Mike Yurcich – 2021 to present

This past off-season, loyal lieutenant and longtime Defensive Coordinator Brent Pry took the Virginia Tech job. Franklin turns to co-Defensive Coordinators as former Miami DC and Head Coach Manny Diaz and longtime Safeties Coach Anthony Poindexter take over for Pry. Another seismic shift happened earlier this year as Athletic Director Sandy Barbour retired, and Penn State brought Boston College's Patrick Kraft in as the new Athletic Director.

Recent Struggles

Since the 2019 Minnesota game, the Nittany Lions are 14-13. Penn State entered that game, ranked No. 4 in the country, undefeated. During the same span, the Nittany Lions are 3-11 against Power 5 teams that finish with a winning record. On the offensive side of the ball, Penn State has struggled since the forced retirement of RB Journey Brown after the 2019 season:

Year/Stat

Attempts/PG

Rank

Yards/PG

Rank

Yards Per Carry

Rank

2019

39.3

51

192.0

36

4.9

T25

2020

44.7

13

174.3

56

3.9

84

2021

33.6

102

107.8

118

3.2

122

Penn State Rushing Offense

The drop-offs from the 2019 season are noticeable, a nearly 44 percent drop-off in rush yards per game, and where Penn State finished in the 2021 season wasn't in the neighborhoods of Ohio State's or Alabama's, or Georgia's but the Temple's, UNLV's, Florida International's of the world.

Rushing First Downs plummeted during the 2021 season; during the 2020 season, Penn State was 22nd with 11 Rushing First Downs Per Game, and in the 2021 season, Penn State was 107th with only 7 Rushing First Downs Per Game. Penn State's passing game hasn't progressed either, with the same constant at starting quarterback: Sean Clifford. Clifford hasn't been all at fault; his receivers have dropped balls, but reviewing the passing statistics has shown similar regression as former Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg:

Year/Stat

Comp%

Rank

Yards Per Game

Rank

Pass TD Per Game

Rank

2019

58.8

80

221.3

76

1.9

38

2020

60.3

70

256.0

40

1.9

45

2021

59.9

90

268.5

26

1.9

42

Penn State Passing Offense

Scroll to Continue

Recommended Articles

The other area where Penn State has floundered is in field goal kicking. In 2019, Franklin leveraged two kickers. Jake Pinegar was the extra point and 50 yards and under kicker for Penn State. Pinegar in 2019 executed 96.6% of his extra points and 91.7% of his field goals. Stout would attempt three long field goals and hit on 2 of them for a 66.7% conversion. Overall, Pinegar and Stout combined to execute on 86.7% of their kicks in 2019, good for 16th in the nation.

The regression of Pinegar was noticeable in 2020 as he hit on 69% of his kicks. Franklin named Stout for complete kicking duties in 2021, and while the Big Ten Punter of the Year in 2021 excelled at punting, his placekicking was inconsistent and cost Penn State a few games last year. During the 2020 and 2021 seasons, Penn State failed to rank higher than 84th in the country in field goal kicking percentage. What has saved Penn State during this span has been a top-notch defense that has had a Top 10 scoring defense in three of the previous five seasons.

Signs of Life?

Franklin and his staff rebounded on the recruiting trail after a 2-6 finish to their 2021 campaign by hauling a Top 10 class for the 2022 recruiting cycle.

A trio of 5-star commits highlighted it:

  • Dani Dennis-Sutton - #7 Defensive End
  • Drew Allar - #4 Pro-Style Quarterback
  • Nick Singleton - #1 Runningback

The class featured nine commits in the Top 10 of their position groups nationally by 247 Sports. Franklin's recruiting momentum has carried into the 2023 recruiting cycle; as of this writing, a Top 3 recruiting class should finish in the Top 10. It is currently highlighted by a commit from the nation's top interior offensive lineman Alex Birchmeier a 5-star commit from Ashburn, VA.

Penn State seems to be inching closer to key targets Ta'Mere Robinson (4-star LB #1 recruit in PA), Tony Rojas (4-star LB, #2 recruit in Virginia), and 4-star CB Daniel Harris has Penn State in his final four teams (Penn State, Michigan, Ohio State, Georgia). Penn State lands two of the three; it should put them in a solid position to stack another Top 10 class.

Floundering or Flourishing?

The Penn State Administration sought consistency in their program by extending Franklin to a 10-year $70 million extension. The contract's total value reaches $85 million with annual retention bonuses and life insurance bonuses.

If Franklin were to right the ship in Happy Valley, he would receive additional bonuses:

  • $250,000 for appearing in a Big Ten Championship game
  • $350,000 for winning the Big Ten Championship
  • $200,000 for any bowl game
  • $100,000 for Big Ten Coach of Year
  • $800,000 if Penn State wins a National Championship

For the buyout it breaks down like this:

  • Departure before December 31, 2022 - $8 million
  • Departure during the 2023 year - $6 million
  • Departure between 2024-2025 - $2 million
  • Departure after January 1, 2026, to end of the contract - $1 million

The notice is to Franklin that they believe in him in extending a lucrative deal to a coach who has barely been above .500 the last couple of seasons. This gives the university the ability to end their relationship with Franklin sooner rather than later if he does not produce on the field and is not handicapped like a school like Auburn is still being on the hook to Gus Malzahn for $75 million for his departure.

Conversely, if Franklin is successful and sees himself wanting to go to another big college job or the NFL, the buyout isn't handcuffing him either. Overall, the answer to the question is mixed. He is flourishing in recruiting; however, he is floundering on the field.

He must hope he finds stability on the ball's offensive side in coaching. He must hope that Manny Diaz can equal or exceed the job of his predecessor Brent Pry defensively.

Penn State fans are patient, but they are not accustomed to the mediocre product Franklin has delivered the past two seasons. To flourish on the field, Franklin needs to push itself back ahead of Michigan State. Michigan now seems to leapfrogged Penn State, winning the Big Ten and going to the College Football Playoff. Ohio State is a league ahead, and while Nittany Lion fans don't like to hear they are 1-7 versus Ohio State under James Franklin, it will be a while before they catch up to Ohio State.