UNIVERSITY PARK — A handful of Penn State fans had staked out Holuba Hall where inside, several former Nittany Lions worked out for NFL scouts earlier this week.
They were there to take photos with and get autographs from prospective pro football stars. Those fans ended up meeting James Franklin.
Penn State’s coach emerged from the building around midday and promptly gravitated toward the group of supporters. Not all of them saw Franklin and a few were surprised when he drew their attention with an easy-going “How are you guys?”
Franklin shook hands, took a few pictures, signed autographs and chatted football before making his way across the sidewalk to the football team’s training complex.
In just 13 weeks on the job, Franklin’s done plenty of this. Eventually, he’ll get around to coaching a game. His first opportunity comes Saturday, when Blue faces White in Penn State’s annual intrasquad scrimmage at Beaver Stadium.
For the eldest players on his roster, Franklin is the fourth head coach for whom they have played. It’s a group that’s withstood the fallout from the Jerry Sandusky scandal, experienced the firing and passing of Joe Paterno and weathered and endured two seasons under NCAA sanctions under Bill O’Brien.
Franklin, a Pennsylvania native who called the Penn State gig his “dream job” during his introductory press conference in January, is perfectly aware of the situation in Happy Valley.
“Considering the fact that me and Billy O’Brien are good friends and we worked together at the University of Maryland, he gave me very, very honest feedback about what was going on, what to expect,” Franklin said. “I had a lot of conversations with him ahead of time and have had a lot of conversations with him since, trying to learn from someone who’s experienced this. I feel like I had a pretty good picture of what we were signing up for ahead of time and couldn’t be more excited about being here, our future and where we’re going.”
Franklin’s energy was evident at his first press conference, when he made his declaration that Penn State would “dominate the state” of Pennsylvania in recruiting. Since then, the Nittany Lions have gotten commitments from five vaunted Pennsylvania recruits.
His energy has trickled down to Penn State players, who quickly recovered from the shock of losing O’Brien to the NFL’s Houston Texans at the turn of the New Year. The departure of O’Brien, who had helped rally Penn State players and the community following the darkest time in the program’s history, was tough, senior linebacker Mike Hull said.
Hull said the uncertainty leading up to and during Franklin’s hiring process was also difficult.
“We got really close-knit as a team and we kind of just said we are just going to take this upon ourselves and it doesn’t really matter what happens,” Hull said. “So I think there was a lull there, but I think he’s doing a good job and he’s starting to break that lull down with a lot of guys on the team.
“The last couple of weeks have been really good. We’ve made a lot of progress.”
Franklin would like to be farther ahead. The NCAA’s 20-hour rule, which only permits coaches to spend that amount of time with players during approved sessions, and the demands of recruiting, slowed the relationship-building process. Until spring ball, that is.
“I think the 20-hour rule is great, especially when you’ve been established. I think it serves a purpose,” Franklin said. “But when you’re a new program and you’re trying to do those things, spend the extra time with them to develop that rapport and the chemistry, it makes it challenging. I’m not the most patient guy, but it’s happening over time.”
And it’s happening with turbocharged practices that have taken on a physical, competitive tone.
Penn State players who grew used to O’Brien’s limited-contact drills — brought from the NFL and implemented due to NCAA-reduced levels of scholarship players — have relished the more physical nature of Franklin’s sessions.
“I think the intensity in practice and how fast-paced everything is, that’s the biggest difference between this year’s and last year’s practice,” junior cornerback Jordan Lucas said.
And it’s not all theatrics and long-winded, silver-tongued speeches with Franklin.
Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said Franklin is as good of a tactician as he’s worked with.
“I think one of the things people fail to recognize about Coach Franklin sometimes, too, is that he has great charisma and it’s well deserved,” Shoop said. “But he’s got a great football mind.”
Franklin helped turn around a Vanderbilt program that suffered losing seasons in 27 of 29 years before he was hired. In his three years as the Commodores’ head coach, Vanderbilt went 24-15 and won two bowl games.
While the start of the season is still five months away, Franklin is using all the time he has to build up what O’Brien left behind.
The Blue-White game is simply one more step, and a valuable one for a coach still evaluating and connecting.
“Obviously being new here, this has been a great opportunity to get out on the field and lay our foundation,” Franklin said. “Offense, defense and special teams and more from a concepts standpoint and a mentality standpoint of how to practice and how we do things.”
Follow Travis Johnson on Twitter @bytravisjohnson.