As Sunday faded into Monday, Penn State football players, who before the weekend were filled with uncertainty about their program and its leadership, were welling up with excitement.
Spread across the country on winter break just a week before, Penn State players could only watch as Bill O’Brien’s impending exit unfolded on computer screens and television sets in their homes away from campus. The former coach touched base with each player and his move to the NFL became reality.
Now, Penn State players are full of anticipation to play for James Franklin who was introduced over the weekend and introduced himself to Penn State players at a team meeting on Sunday evening.
“My first impression of him was great,” cornerback Jordan Lucas said. “He’s a players coach it seems like. He has a very positive attitude and he wants to get the ball moving real fast here. I know all the guys are real excited about that and we’re just real anxious to put the work in and see how far he can take us.”
Added linebacker Mike Hull:
“My first impression of him was he seems like he really knows what he’s doing. He seems like a great leader and he gave everyone a role and it seems like everything is going to be running smoothly this spring.”
For Penn State players, they expect the transition process from the two-year O’Brien era to the Franklin era be much smoother than the turnovers that occurred two years ago when O’Brien replaced Tom Bradley following Joe Paterno’s firing.
And although they aren’t completely sure which position coaches Franklin will bring with him yet, Penn State players are sure Franklin will assemble an effective staff in timely fashion.
Players have been notified that former Vanderbilt strength and conditioning coach Dwight Galt will take over the same role at Penn State. Galt was a mentor to former Penn State strength and conditioning coach Craig Fitzgerald, who was wildly popular with players.
“The first time it was the first coach in 40-some years for Penn State so there was a lot of uncertainty and people didn’t know what was going to happen; if Coach O’Brien was even going to be that great of a head coach,” Hull said. “But he proved to be a great coach and he left our program in great shape.”
“We know that Coach Franklin has done a great job at Vanderbilt, a struggling program in the past, so we’re really confident in him and we have a lot of confidence in the staff and we’re really excited to see what he can do for Penn State.”
Some players already had a rapport with Franklin.
Receiver Geno Lewis, who played high school football for Wyoming Valley West, was recruited by Franklin when the latter was offensive coordinator at Maryland. Lewis felt a bit of deja vu when Franklin commanded the floor inside the team’s meeting room at the Lasch Building Sunday.
“He’s a really good guy. He’s somebody you can talk to,” Lewis said. “He makes you feel comfortable when you’re around him and he’s definitely somebody you’d like to play for. I’m glad he got the opportunity to come back to Pennsylvania and be able to coach Penn State and our guys and I really think it’s going to go well for him.”
Offensive guard Miles Dieffenbach said Franklin talked about relationship-building and planned to sit down with each player individually over the coming days.
Before Saturday, a few players took it upon themselves to text their teammates to try and keep everyone on the same page. Lucas and running back Bill Belton were two players who reached out to their teammates.
“I told them, whoever our coach is going to be, we’re going to be fine,” Lucas said. “We’re going to come in, we’re going to come back in January and we’re going to work hard, we’re going to train like we’ve never trained before and we’ll be fine. Because it’s nothing we haven’t been through before. We faced tons of adversity before.”
Penn State players have only had a few days back on campus. Hull said they realize it is unrealistic to expect Franklin to know what each of them brings to the program individually.
Hull remembered back to the winter of 2012 when O’Brien came in with his staff. Just like then, every player is on the same even slate with the new coach.
“The most important transition and the thing you really need to do is establish yourself as a hard-worker, just let the coaches know that you’re 100 percent dedicated to the team and we have a lot of guys that are going to do that,” Hull said.