STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (WHTM) — Penn State Football has been on the cusp of college football greatness, but will look to cement itself as one of the top teams in college football in 2023.
Head Coach James Franklin explores the realistic expectations for his Nittany Lions coming off an 11-2 Rose Bowl Champion season in 2022 in a one-on-one interview with abc27 Sports Director Allie Berube.
Ahead of the 2023 season, there are plenty of holes to fill; the biggest at quarterback. Four-year starter Sean Clifford is off to the NFL and a second year QB will have to step into the role.
Franklin discusses the progress Penn State has made in NIL, facility upgrades to the football practice building and Beaver Stadium, recruiting strategy in Pennsylvania and sets realistic expectations for the 2023 season. The Rose Bowl Champion head coach does not shy away from fan’s expectations that this team needs to contend for the College Football Playoff.
Penn State is set to kick off the 2023 season at home against West Virginia on Saturday, September 2 inside Beaver Stadium.
Allie Berube: In these coveted couple of weeks where you’re in between camps, what are the goals? What are you trying to accomplish in this time period?
James Franklin: I love how we’re getting the real feel here with the guys hitting the sleds down here, but that’s kind of what’s going on. Guys have classes right now in the summer, not a full load. They’re working out, you know, whether it’s lifting or running. And then they’re doing some individual work on their own. I think we got Dvon Ellies down here, taking one of our freshman defensive linemen and kind of showing him how to hit the sled. So they’re getting some individual workouts. It’s a lot of player led stuff right now.
Berube: We talk about spring and the differences you can make there. Is summer [camp] really where you solidify your spot on the depth chart. I know we don’t talk about depth chart, but is this where you solidify those positions for these guys?
Franklin: Yeah, I wouldn’t necessarily say solidify. They’re working now to give them self a base, both mentally and physically, to have a chance to legitimately compete during training camp. So that’s what they’re doing now.
Berube: I want to go back a couple of years. You signed the new ten-year contract. We don’t know who the university president is, nor the athletic director, [there’s] a lot of transition. When you look back hindsight, 2020, how great of a decision was it to stay here at Penn State to get to build this program, knowing what you know now with the support this program has?
Franklin: Well, obviously, you know, the decision that the university made in hiring Neeli Bendapudi has been huge. Dr. Neeli Bendapudi. Our new university president, has been phenomenal and we’ve really hit it off. So that’s been great. And then being able to go out and hire Dr. Pat Kraft, obviously an established athletic director, whether it’s Temple or Boston College. Even more so than that, he’s a Big Ten guy. He played in the Big Ten, played football in the Big Ten. I think all those things help and and, you know, my relationship with Pat, really since he’s arrived on campus has been has been good.
So I think your point is a good one. I signed a ten year contract. There’s been really two times now, you know, I took the job with an interim AD and an interim university president and then signed a ten year contract, not knowing kind of the future there as well, understanding that President Barron was going to be retiring. So it’s worked out well.
Berube: You just got a lot of faith in Penn State, a lot of love for this place?
Franklin: That’s right. Yeah, that that’s a big part of it.
Berube: You talk a lot about alignment, though, and how important that is that the board understands what you’re trying to build. The athletic department understands the president. You talk about finally feeling like you have that. How important is it? What does that mean in terms of functionally what this program is able to do?
Franklin: Well, it’s not what I’m trying to build as what is what we’re trying to build. What was so important to so many Penn Staters, the community, the region, the state, obviously, there’s a far reaching impact to all of those things. But yeah, I think at the end of the day, it’s no different than alignment in any other business or any other field for you to reach the highest levels. Everybody’s got to be pulling the rope in the same direction.
And obviously, if it’s as competitive as college football is, it becomes even more challenging. But I don’t care what industry it is, if you’re getting a bunch of little no’s throughout a year, those add up and become significant, just like those little yes’s that we’re getting right now. Those are those are adding up as well.
Berube: You talk about needing to compete in all phases of the game and probably the part that you wish you could care about less was everything outside of football, but you make the improvements here at the Lasch facility, which is gorgeous. You now have a $700 million renovation coming to Beaver Stadium. These were things the university had to get done. But is that making a difference in terms of what you guys are able to accomplish in a practice, in a game, bringing a good experience to fans?
Franklin: Yeah. So for us, first of all, yeah, I do think it makes a difference. But for us, you know, we wanted to make sure when we first got here that we took care of all the things that impacted the players: the locker room, the weight room, the meeting room. So we had the best environment possible to teach and coach and help them grow, so those things were really important.
But it’s interesting, you know, when you talk about facilities, that was a fight when I first got here, there was some resistance to that, very similar to what we’re going through now with the change in NIL rules and transfer portal and things like that. So the quicker we can embrace these things, then the quicker we can get to competing at the very, very highest level on a consistent basis. And that’s really the goal.
Berube: It was towards the end of spring practice this year. And we had an NIL conversation with you and you said we’re finally in that position where we’re all kind of moving in the same direction and we have a clear vision. What is Penn State’s NIL vision and is it becoming successful?
Franklin: Well, I think it’s changed dramatically, obviously, over the last year, specifically with Pat Kraft. But it’s basically that make sure that all 31 sports have the ability to compete at the very, very highest level. And not only from a Penn State perspective, but with what we’re having to compete with on a national level and really even within our conference. So obviously, from my perspective, it’s football. But I still make the argument that healthy football is really good for the entire athletic department, which is really good for the entire university and the state.
Berube: In terms of NIL we’re seeing businesses starting to step up and understand, you know, what it takes for you guys and how that relationship can benefit them. Do you believe that a successful Penn State football is good for the state of Pennsylvania, not just here at the university?
Franklin: Oh, I think very much so. You know, the state economy, I think, you know, that’s that’s pretty obvious when you talk about State College specifically. There’s no doubt about it. But a lot of the the the the business people throughout the state of Pennsylvania, you know, they have some some type of business in State College as well, whether it’s bars or restaurants or hotels or whatever it may be. So, yeah, I do believe that. And I think what you’re really looking for is like you are in any other relationship as you’d like it to be a win-win, right? So you’d like this to be something that makes sense for Penn State football. But we also like the people that we’re working with to get a return on their investment as well.
Obviously, you’re going to have the opportunity and the access and the opportunity to build a relationship with some of our players and get to know them. But but your love for it to be a positive impact on their businesses as well. I think there’s been a ton of examples where that is, where that has played out that way.
Berube: Is NIL now transforming college football as much as the outside thinks it is?
Franklin: Yeah. I think you would have to say it is. Yeah. You know, it’s a it’s a major change. The transfer portal has been a major change and NIL has been a major change in recruiting and in keeping your current roster. So yeah, I think, I think for sure it’s, it’s probably as big and I’d make the argument bigger than what probably most people think.
Berube: You talk about best in PA, stay and PA when it comes to recruiting. You’ve had tremendous success in the last few years, especially getting some really talented players in this program. Do you still subscribe to wanting Pennsylvania players to come to Penn State?
Franklin: It’s about win win. I believe for us to reach the highest levels, we need to keep the best players in the state of Pennsylvania home, and it starts with that. That’s kind of our foundation. And then you build from there and there’s going to be some years where maybe there’s not a quarterback in the state of Pennsylvania that makes sense for us. So we have to go further or there may not be receivers or defensive backs. It really depends on the year. Some years it may be strong for a certain position, the next year it may be week, but the foundation is going to come from the state of Pennsylvania and then we’ll complement that foundation with players from all over the country.
Berube: Being able to see those Pennsylvania kids, we think about Micah Parsons all the time, achieve all their dreams, success here at Penn State, success in the NFL. You’re a Pennsylvania guy yourself. Is there pride in that in building a program that kids in this area can look up to?
Franklin: Yeah, I think it I think it means more. I think it means more to those guys, you know, when they’re on the field representing their home state. I also think to your point, whether people are watching this show or other shows throughout the state of Pennsylvania and they see our players are thriving in this environment both academically and athletically.
You brought up Micah Parsons. I think he’s a perfect example, and I don’t think it gets talked about enough, not only as Micah thrived from a football perspective, but Micah graduated from Penn State and three years. This is a very, very challenging and competitive school. Take football out of it. And he came here and thrived. So I think there’s just example after example of guys coming here and doing really well, both on and off the football field.
Berube: I think when we talk about him, we were so invested with his family and seeing how this program really embraced everyone, especially now that he’s in the NFL. But how special is that, that you get to be not only a part of Micah’s life, but of all these players, families, and now maybe with NIL and things like that and different opportunities you’re able to really invest in these kids on a personal level. Is that why you coach? Is that why you get involved?
Franklin: Yeah, at the end of the day, that that’s what it’s all about, right? This is a relationship business. You’re trying to help young people grow and evolve along their journey. If it was just about wins and losses, you just go coach in the NFL. You’re coaching in college football, at least I would hope you’re coaching in college football because you want to make a difference in people’s lives. And obviously those are the things that that you really take with you, whether you’re being invited to Trace McSorley’s wedding this past spring, or whether it’s going to a guy’s graduation, you know, there’s just so many examples of of guys going on and doing really good things. I think next weekend, Sam Ficken is getting married in Chicago. So at the end of the day, it’s about relationships and watching these guys, you know, achieve their dreams.
Berube: Best wedding, you’ve been invited to – I’m just kidding. I wouldn’t do that to you. If you could finish a phrase for me: Penn State will make the College Football Playoff in 2023, if…
Franklin: So I don’t know if it’s that simple of just a fill in the blank. But I think if if ultimately we can find a way to maximize our opportunities and that’s as individual players, that’s on offense, defense and special teams, that is from a depth perspective. Because what you find is late in the season, you know, being able to have enough depth to get through an entire season and still be playing your best football when it matters most. So there’s a lot of things that that kind of factor into that. But, you know, as you know, my answer is going to be we need to start with West Virginia.
Berube: Is it a realistic expectation to put you guys at that level wanting to compete at that level, though?
Franklin: Yeah, I think we’ve been a part of those conversations really for probably the better part of the last seven years. We’ve been right on the cusp. So I think when you’re able to become a part of those conversations on a consistent basis, then you’re going to have a year where the stars align and things go well. So yeah, I think it’s fair. I think we finished the season. Ranked number seven in the country were anywhere between five and six on on most publications out there preseason rankings. So yeah, I think it’s fair to have those conversations. Now the other thing that’s challenging that we embrace is that you’ve got Ohio State, Michigan and us all within the top seven teams in the country. So and that’s only on our side of the conference. So it’s extremely competitive. We love that.
Berube: Conference realignment hopefully in the future, maybe to even out that balance?
Franklin: Well, we’ll see how that plays out. It’s coming as we know, but it’ll be interesting and all the moving parts and how it how it finally plays out.
Berube: When you think about the expectations that are always sky high for Penn State, these fans love this team. You have a new starting quarterback no matter who emerges. Is that a challenge that we have to consider as well as getting feet wet with West Virginia is no cupcake.
Franklin: Yeah. Whenever you lose a veteran quarterback like we did in Sean Clifford, who got drafted in the fifth round, so happy for him, by the Green Bay Packers. But you know when you’ve had a guy who’s been a multiple year starter and now you’re going into a little bit of some unknowns at that position and the the the impact of that position and whether it’s, you know, the NFL or college football major college football, that’s a question mark for sure.
I think we got a chance to be better on the offensive line. I think we got a chance to be better at tight end. I think we’ve got a chance to be better at the running back position from an experience standpoint. You know our two question marks that we have to get resolved is wide receiver and quarterback. And I think if we can get those resolved, then I think we have some internal pieces that can allow us to do that, then I think the sky’s the limit defensively. You know, we lost some good players, but I think we got a chance to be really good on defense.
Berube: It really feels like no matter who’s in the defense, it’s going to be successful. You guys really recruit strong there.
Franklin: Yeah, we got a chance, I think, defensively to to do some really good things. We had a big question mark going into last year at linebacker. We were inexperienced at linebacker. We’re not anymore with a ton of experience coming back. We lost a first round draft choice, what I still consider our first round corner got drafted 32nd overall, which in most years would be a first round draft choice. But we think we got a chance to be, you know, as good or better. You obviously lose in Porter and Tiig are two big pieces but but we like the guys that that are going to be competing at those positions this year.
Berube: Tiig is an energy guy too you got to got to find someone with that level of energy.
Franklin: And just a tremendous leader, tremendous leader behind the scenes in our locker rooms.
Berube: It’s not often that people get to hear it straight from you without a filter about what this program is and what it means to the state. If you’re talking to a fan about why Penn State is special, what do you want them to know about what you all are building here?
Franklin: Well, I want them to feel connected. I want them to feel like this represents the state of Pennsylvania, something that we take a lot of pride in that represents them the right way in terms of blue collar, hard nosed, but doing things the right way and with class. So I want I don’t care where you’re at in the state of Pennsylvania that you recognize that this is your land grant university that represents the entire commonwealth and take great pride in that. And we have a ton of respect, obviously, for the other schools within the state, whether it is Pitt or whether it is Temple or Villanova or so on and so forth. But obviously we take tremendous pride in representing the entire state.