James Franklin believes, all things considered, that his two-and-half-season tenure at Penn State has been a productive one.
With the Nittany Lions in a bye week, preparing to move forward from the midseason point toward No. 2 Ohio State next weekend, Franklin took a moment after Wednesday’s practice to reflect on his time at the helm so far.
“You take what happened here, you take recruiting, you take transfers, you take everything, you take coaching changes, and I think (it’s been) pretty good,” the coach said.
Through 32 games as Penn State’s head coach, Franklin owns an 18-14 overall record. After back-to-back wins the past couple weeks over Minnesota and Maryland, Franklin’s mark in Big Ten games is 8-11.
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The coach finished 7-6 his first two years, and the Nittany Lions currently sit at 4-2 with a more-than-reasonable opportunity to reach a third-straight bowl game this season.
Franklin mentioned that the conference has shifted since he arrived. It’s no longer separated into “Legends and Leaders” divisions; instead, Penn State contends with Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State every year — a trio of teams Franklin has gone 0-7 against.
“The conference has changed dramatically,” the coach noted. “You can make the argument that our side of the conference is the best conference in college football.”
Franklin didn’t want to make excuses, though. He said the coaches — and fans — want more.
Still, he likes what he and his staff have done so far at Penn State.
“If you took the emotion out of it, if you weren’t a Penn State fan, and you listed all the things,” Franklin said, “I think probably a lot of people would take where we’re at at this point.”
Fries juggling “redshirt mentality”
The plan was for freshman offensive tackle Will Fries to redshirt this season.
He might not have that option anymore.
With redshirt junior right tackle and unit leader Andrew Nelson possibly lost for the season after leaving Saturday’s win over Maryland with a leg injury, Franklin and the coaching staff have been searching for a replacement.
The coach said Tuesday that four players — Fries, Brendan Mahon, Chasz Wright and Paris Palmer — were possible gap-fillers with Noah Beh suspended for a violation of team rules.
However, Fries is the only one in that group that hasn’t seen any live action.
Franklin said the 6-foot-6, 295-pound New Jersey native has been in a “redshirt mentality” this year until recently, garnering more snaps in practice.
“Obviously now he’s closer to playing,” Franklin said. “He’s not really out of a redshirt until we put him in a game, and right now it’s not like he’s showed that he’s going to be the starter come the first play of the game (against Ohio State). But if we have any other injuries, the discussion’s over.”
Franklin noted that Fries has discussed the possibility of shedding the redshirt this year with his parents, and he’s ready to do so if necessary.
Before Nelson’s injury, this wasn’t even a conversation Fries had to have, but the situation is a little different now.
“We had a little wiggle room before,” Franklin said, “and now we don’t really have any wiggle room left.”
Zembiec “playing catch-up”
As Trace McSorley continues to grow as Penn State’s signal-caller and Tommy Stevens serves as his backup, a third quarterback is making progress, too.
Jake Zembiec, previously a highly touted recruit now a freshman in the system, is “playing catch-up,” Franklin said, but the blame can’t be pinned on the quarterback.
Franklin said Zembiec arrived in Happy Valley with an unspecified, pre-existing injury from high school, something that withheld him from being in peak physical condition in order to compete for the starting quarterback job.
A 2015 Elite 11 finalist and New York State’s 2015 Gatorade Player of the Year, Zembiec has logged plenty of mental reps, but needs to ramp up his physical shape.
“He has to get stronger in general in his movements, running abilities and ability to drive some of those throws,” Franklin said. “He’s got a natural feel for the position and a natural feel for the game, but he needs a lot of physical development still.”
While the players have an opportunity to go home and relax this weekend, Franklin and the coaching staff’s jobs continue.
Friday night will be used for recruiting, while Saturday morning Franklin will drive down to East Stroudsburg University, where he’ll be inducted into its athletic hall of fame. Franklin quarterbacked East Stroudsburg in his playing days, setting school records for touchdown passes (19) and passing yards (2,586) in 1994.
But when he returns home from East Stroudsburg, after putting his two daughters to bed, he’ll conduct some relaxed scouting.
No. 2 Ohio State travels to No. 8 Wisconsin on Saturday night, and Franklin wouldn’t miss the chance to get a live look at the Buckeyes, next week’s opponent.
His routine is simple.
“Usually I just go down in the basement, sit there by myself, and watch the game,” Franklin said. “Maybe walk upstairs, get a soda and some chips. It’s not as glamorous as people think.”