Sports

Energetic James Franklin, trio of players attend Big Ten Media Days in Chicago

AP

CHICAGO The James Franklin World Tour continued with a stop in Chicago on Friday morning for Penn State’s turn at Big Ten Media Days.

Maybe it’s not really a world tour, but Franklin’s motor hasn’t stopped running in a while. He went from welcoming the new freshmen, to making Penn State’s big nameless uniform announcement, to a staff team-building retreat earlier this week, to throwing out the first pitch at the Philadelphia Phillies game (benefiting the Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon and the Four Diamonds Fund) Thursday night (had some heat on it, if you were wondering, and he said they were both strikes), to Friday morning’s event.

Franklin was all steady energy as he made his way up to the stage in a simple black suit with gray stripes, accentuated by a paisley tie in various hues of blue, and blue-and-gray striped socks that only peeked out from beneath the hem of his slacks when he sat down.

He was the last of the day’s coaches to address the media in the formal podium session. His voice was clear and fittingly indefatigable as he made his opening statements.

“Well, (I’m) really excited about the opportunity to be here today, represent Penn State, represent the Big Ten. You think about the story that’s being told about our institution and the Big Ten as a whole this year compared to last year. It couldn’t be more dramatically different.

“So many positive things (are) falling into place for us right now. Penn State being able to get the scholarships back, having an opportunity to go to bowl games, the way recruiting is going, the way we played in the bowl, and the way the season ended.

“Really happy for our kids and our program. We’re coming into this season with nothing floating over our head. They have the ability to be able to chase their dreams at the very, very highest level.”

The moderator opened up the room to questions. And then....

Silence.

Franklin looked left, looked right. In front of him, there was nothing but the tapping of keys as the room full of reporters rushed to write down his statement and upload their videos. His eyebrows raised.

“Okay...?” He started to say. The pause was strange; the silence swelled for just a moment, but it seemed a long one.

Then the hands started to raise, and the morning rolled onward, with the oft-discussed topics of his offensive line and, of course, Christian Hackenberg.

These questions have not really changed — hence the pause. Franklin’s answers to these questions, which have flooded over him since Penn State’s 2014 season ended, have hardly changed.

That’s a good thing.

Last year at this time, Franklin and his players had a different, darker and deeper set of questions to answer as he prepared to take over a program that had recently been shaken to its core. Not only was he a new coach, he was a new coach in what has emerged as one of the strongest FBS conferences in the nation, of a program with over a century of tradition before him, and he’d be the fourth head coach of that program in three years. That’s a day full of tough questions without answers, stories written about a “program on the brink” and “a new hope for Penn State.”

Embrace the pause, Coach.

Now, the biggest stories are about the logistical side of football. The X’s and O’s and any fixes needed that any head coach loves in practice — but hates to discuss over and over again.

The questions include: what does Hackenberg have in store for his future, both this season and after?

“Hack’s had a great summer, and really spring,” Franklin said. “He was on kind of the ‘quarterback circuit.’ Did some things this summer and had some unique experiences, which were awesome as well.

“I definitely want him to be calm, cool, and collected as much as he possibly can,” he added. “But I also think there’s times that he needs to show emotion. I think the guys have got to stay true to who they are. And I think Christian was in a unique situation last year. You’re talking about a true sophomore, 19 years old, that basically the entire offense was on his shoulders.”

Franklin said he wants Hackenberg to have fun this season. To enjoy himself, and be who he is — even if that means getting emotional at times, when warranted.

And, does Penn State’s offensive line play with a chip on its shoulders because of all the scrutiny faced after allowing Hackenberg to be sacked 44 times last year?

“I do. I think so. I think going through it is never fun, but I do think that they will be better because of that experience,” he said. “I think our offensive line has a chip on their shoulder. I think they worked like that all offseason.

“So, yeah, I would really appreciate if any of you guys,” he said, gesturing to the media in the room with a slight grin, “are willing to write some nasty article about them to continue to motivate them to continue to push them throughout the season.”

Touché, Coach.

The biggest storylines have now become whether those the players can actually control themselves. There are questions like the issues with the offensive line, for example. These are questions they can confidently answer with promises and goals for the future, with stability, with solutions.

“(Coach Franklin’s) expectations were the same last year, but I think now it just makes it easier for us to communicate,” said senior center Angelo Mangiro, who spent a sizeable chunk of time assuring those in attendance that they would see a difference on the line this season.

Senior Defensive tackle Anthony Zettel said that being able to really work on things, to have a “real” offseason without too much change or transition, will help with the momentum of the program.

Some of Franklin’s players have seen a change in their coach, as well.

Zettel said he noticed the “walls” — built up by many players after the flight of one too many coaches — weren’t there anymore due to Franklin’s efforts to really get to know his players. Others have cited their coach’s “open door” policy, surely a factor in breaking those barriers as well.

“I have seen him more comfortable, more relaxed around us,” said Mangiro. “Football is a people business. And I think Coach Franklin has done a great job with that, and puts us in a position to make us comfortable as players.”

Mangiro said he knew the transition was hectic for Franklin.

“He knows us now,” Mangiro said. “He has his coaching staff that knows us. He’s comfortable around Penn State, comfortable around the players. I think that’s made him feel better and more relaxed.”

Franklin’s players now know what to expect from him, and vice versa. He moved through his first year — his “opening statement” — with a steady flow of energy, and, by all accounts, it’ll be a steady, consistent flow of energy from here on out.

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