James Franklin and his staff have used open weekends to their advantage and have righted listing ships in the past. Now they’ll try to do it for the first time at Penn State.
With the first of two bye weeks upon them, the Nittany Lions (4-1, 1-1 Big Ten) will have had 10 days to fix mistakes that plagued them through the first five games when they step on the field to play Michigan (2-3, 0-1) on Oct. 11.
“Experience counts and I think the way you handle these bye weeks is really important,” Franklin said. “I’ve worked for a lot of different coaches that have handled them different ways and what we’re trying to do is learn from those past experiences but also do what’s best for Penn State in the here and now.”
That will include slight tweaks to the routines Franklin implemented at his previous job. Franklin is hoping his plan will yield similar success.
At Vanderbilt, Franklin and the majority of Penn State’s current assistants went 0-4 before bye weeks but emerged 3-1 in their next games. With Franklin as coach, Vanderbilt’s only loss after a bye week came to eventual national champion Alabama in 2011.
The Commodores’ turnarounds — especially over Franklin’s final two seasons — were dramatic.
Franklin’s previous teams were outscored 176-58 in games before byes yet outscored their foes 84-59 and notched three wins with extra time to rest and prepare afterward. Meanwhile, the Commodores went a combined 14-2 to finish the 2012 and 2013 seasons after byes.
Franklin said Tuesday that he’ll rest his players more than he’s done in the past. They will not practice Thursday, Friday or Saturday this week and instead will be given time to go home if they choose. Penn State’s coaches will head out of town on recruiting trips.
Penn State’s depth concerns — eight true freshmen have already played this season — have forced Franklin to take a more relaxed approach.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt you’d love to go out and go full speed and bang and do those things but we just can’t afford to do that,” Franklin said.
Practice sessions behind the Lasch Building and inside Holuba Hall will mostly comprise of walk-throughs with contact being limited. While Franklin does not release injury reports, he admitted the Nittany Lions are “banged up” at certain spots right now.
“For the guys that have had the nagging injuries, the nagging ankle or the nagging bruised shoulder, you just need the time off,” Franklin said. “That’s where it’s most valuable. And obviously the guys that are maybe playing more reps than they should be, but based on our situation that’s just kind of where you’re at.”
Senior guard Miles Dieffenbach is still recovering from an anterior cruciate ligament tear and Penn State has just one scholarship upperclassman in Donovan Smith available at tackle. Meanwhile, the linebacking corps suffered a blow when Nyeem Wartman was unable to play with an arm injury on Saturday.
Franklin said he expects Wartman to be back for the Michigan game. In the meantime, coaches have given their younger players more practice reps this week and that trend will continue into Wednesday evening’s session while older players who have played heavy snap counts thus far will be required to focus mostly on film study, Franklin said.
“I think everything is different and everything is magnified here because of the well-documented depth issues that we have and the lack of scholarships and everything like that,” Franklin said. “These things are going to be handled differently here.”
When Penn State players reconvene on Sunday, the opening to next week’s Michigan preparations will provide a different experience, too.
Franklin said he expects the team to benefit from what will virtually be an extra practice day. With Saturday off, Players and coaches won’t have to spend their normal three to three and a half hours reviewing game film — sessions usually reserved for Sundays following games. As a result, Franklin will have slightly more time to implement a game plan for Michigan, a process that oftentimes can feel rushed for a coaching staff prepping for just its sixth game with a program.
Bill O’Brien and his staff experienced difficulties readying for opponents with extra time off, however. Penn State lost to Indiana and Ohio State following byes last season.
Senior linebacker Mike Hull said he wasn’t sure why Penn State didn’t play well with extra time off last season but that everyone seems determined to turn it around now.
“I think there is a fine line between getting people rested and getting work, but I just think everybody and the coaches have to pick things out that they want to work on and get the players to grow from,” Hull said. “That’s one way to approach it.”